Below the Belt
nytheatre.com review by Heather McAllister
October 3, 2009
Below the Belt begins in the dark, worker bee Hanrahan slumped over his typewriter, a crude recording of sporadic clacking booming out, peppered with words of praise or scorn suggesting great struggle with his menial task. Yet when the lights come up, they reveal Hanrahan casually lounging, perhaps slacking, perhaps exhausted by the tedium. He toils in a thoroughly hideous and depressing factory office/sleeping quarters, in an unnamed overseas desert locale. His bouncy new co-worker Dobbit arrives to join his team.
From word one, Hanrahan is rude, insulting, and thoroughly unlikable, a nihilistic malcontent. His foil Dobbit is toadying, annoying, and obsequiously glad handy, an existential Sisyphus, striving to create meaning in his meaninglessness. Their mismatched pairing is torturous, yet potentially ripe with absurd comic possibilities as they desperately scramble over each other to stay on the hamster wheel they spin, as "checkers" in the factory. Their boss, a duplicitous phony named Merkin, immediately pits them against each other.
While this production is meant to be "a timeless indictment of quiet desperation grown wild," it is deliberately, languidly paced and statically staged, removing the punch from many of these potentially comic moments, and lacking the wildness needed in an existential/absurdist farce like this. However, the existential despair all office drones feel is very clearly illustrated. The loss and isolation both men suffer is painful to watch, and builds to a point where, despite their flaws, you can't help but like them both. You can't help but want Hanrahan to drop his semantic harassment of poor Dobbit and give him a chance. You root for Dobbit to keep his moral compass in this Bizarro no-man's-land and grow a backbone. You care.
The set design by Casper De la Torre consists of tarps spattered with red dots, perhaps desert sand, perhaps blood, and horrible metal furnishings, very specifically communicating the misery of the workers surroundings. I felt I was in hell right with them.
Alan Baron's lighting design, in particular the sunset moments, is beautiful. The musical selections, in particular Cal Tjader's "Soul Sauce," are a wonderful contrast to the flat existence of the workers.
Director Larry Preston has staged several key scenes in the center audience aisle, and while I appreciated the close proximity of the action, the scenes were difficult to observe without strain.
Although existential dread is definitely not for everyone, this is an interesting piece, thought-provoking and heartfelt.