The Great Recession
nytheatre.com review by David Ian Lee
December 3, 2009
To call The Great Recession timely would be a gross understatement. Rather, this collection of six short plays currently receiving their world premieres at the Flea Theatre—and featuring the Flea's young resident company, The Bats—feels to me like a definitive meditation on the zeitgeist of our cash-strapped nation and the fearful potentialities of a continued downward spiral.
Adam Rapp's self-directed Classic Kitchen Timer opens the evening with Brechtian panache, all but erasing any boundary between audience and ensemble, between scenario and security. A grease-painted Host (the mesmeric Nick Maccarone) welcomes the audience with a giddy joke and a theatrical cautionary mantra (Phones: Off. Candies: Out) before explicating the cruel state of affairs to which we bare witness: Lucy (Sarah Ellen Stephens) sits, emotionally vacated, in preparation to slaughter the baby upstage; she been practicing on watermelons, the gruesome evidence of which lay as chattel. Should Lucy dismember the cooing tot, she'll receive a financial reward that may almost compensate for her recent layoff.
Rapp's play makes for a bold and disquietingly engaging first volley. Over the next 90 minutes, topics of fiscal reliance and social debasement are lobbed about with the variation and velocity of an arena event, made all the more gripping by the unforgiving intimacy of the Flea's space. The eclectic evening includes scenes of humor and abstraction, including Fucked, Itamar Moses's sullied twist on romantic comedy (directed by Michelle Tattenbaum), and Erin Courtney's oddly surreal chance-meeting amongst New Yorkers in search of communion and quick coin, Severed (directed by Davis McCallum). The night closes with Will Eno's Unum, the circuitous story of a piece of legal tender, which takes as its title a parsing from the Latin inscription on American currency; Flea founder /artistic director Jim Simpson directs with poignant efficiency.
For laughs-per-minute, it's hard to beat Thomas Bradshaw's New York Living, a very funny look at the familiar compromises made by artists to live and love in the Big Apple. An actor and an actress in rehearsal of a hot 'n' heavy play develop revulsion for and then feelings toward one another, while their lecherous director manipulates the situation for puerile amusement. Raul Sigmund Julia and Anna Greenfield offer gamesome performances as the pelvic performers, and Andy Gershenzon is wily as their coltish director. Morgan Reis takes a fine turn as a caustic Manhattanite who would rather grab her ankles than visit the boroughs. Director Ethan McSweeny presents Bradshaw's play with the toxic innocence of an after-school special; broad smiles conceal stealthy smirks and winks land with the precision of laser-guided missiles.
But the evening belongs to Recess, Sheila Callaghan's end-of-the-world nightmare pastiche, directed with queasy verisimilitude by Kip Fagan. Set in "a pristine but old as hell studio apartment somewhere in Manhattan," Recess imagines a Lord of the Flies scenario, in which 11 disparate young souls squat and starve and cling to existence; this is the anti-Rent. The play features graphic promiscuity and gruesome violence as alternatives to oral communication, as the broken individuals on display struggle to connect in a world of downsized compassion. In its most chilling, final moments, the survivors of Recess find themselves united by David Bowie's rabbit hole anthem "Life On Mars," the lyrics to which are sure to haunt conscientious audience members long into the night.
Across the diverse playscapes of The Great Recession there are thoughtful winds of discontent. Complacency is eviscerated, and hope born of sentimentality isn't even allowed through the door. Though most of the plays appear to take place in a world two or three warped degrees away from our own, they hum with a vibrancy and immediacy that demands contemplation long after the house lights have risen. Whether or not our economic woes will see a turnaround in the near or far future, or whether we as a people will learn from history, remains to be seen, yet the prospects after an evening with the Bats seem a little brighter.
Too often, festival presentations of one-acts play as hodgepodges of intermittently related material, with grievous shifts in tone and quality. Such is not the case with The Great Recession: the evening's connective tissue has been cultivated with fiendish wit and propinquity. Expedient scene shifts are shaped by character (and are sprinkled with good-natured nudity; this brilliantly serves the double purpose of inoculating the audience from the shock of flesh later bared for darker purposes), and though few of the actors appear in multiple roles, the ensemble feels as tight-knit as the tiniest of repertories. Indeed, when the full 50-plus person cast appears for their curtain call, there is additional awe and wonder in the uniformity and collective spirit of such a large company. As a parting salutation, the curtain call itself is staged with humility and genuine gratitude. The Great Recession earned a standing ovation the night I attended, though the production virtually necessitated one after this graceful, final touch.