nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
August 19, 2009
Borderline is the kind of stripped-down, elegantly simple solo show that shines at FringeNYC: one man, one chair, a few lighting and sound effects, sharp observations, and an emotional immediacy that connects powerfully with the audience in a tiny performance space.
The central character is a troubled guy—he has a long history of both mental illness (diagnosed as schizophrenia, though also often bearing the symptoms of bipolar disorder/manic depression) and drug abuse. And, not unconnected to the above—since it's hard to get a legitimate job when you're in your early twenties and your only qualifications or credentials are five years in and out of a psych ward—he's also got a bit of a criminal past.
Although the show raises the question of which came first, immersion in drug culture (especially Ecstasy and the British rave scene) or madness, it seems clear from the back story that this character has been battling his demons his whole life, from a troubled relationship with his mother to a first hospitalization for mental illness as a teenager; drugs and alcohol surely didn't help but they may well have felt like self-medication.
He's had a few periods of being more or less "straight"—on his meds, trying to forge relationships, trying to live a "regular" life on his own, but the show's pathos lies in how close he always is to slipping over the edge again, in the heartbreaking cycle of remission and relapse. And one of the most heartbreaking details (which, in a testament to Rob Benson's skill as both writer and performer, rings alarmingly true to anyone who's ever had a close relationship with a mentally ill person) is that the audience, every time, can see him slipping before he can. We see him approaching that borderline between sane and crazy, between okay and utterly falling apart—but he seems more likely to figure it out from so far on the other side of the line that it's almost impossible to get back over it one more time.
And yet Benson and director Jennifer Lunn have built such a strong foundation with a regular-guy (albeit very British, so slightly less immediate than "guy next door") tone and a friendly, conversational relationship with the audience that our connection to and kinship with the character stay strong even when he's most crazy or most criminal (though a somewhat hilariously inept criminal).
The writing can be a little rough around the edges; some of the transitions from scene to scene feel strained. The text shifts back and forth between prose and rhyming verse, which is sometimes marvelously effective at establishing rhythm but I didn't always understand the narrative logic behind the shifts. But the story, and the character, are never less than compelling—and the piece packs a surprising number of emotional punches and twists into its compressed, under-an-hour run-time.