nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
November 17, 2010
You think you know what you're getting into at the beginning of Eliza Clark's Edgewise, from the minute you walk in and see the set: a slightly down-at-the-heels New Jersey fast-food joint called Dougal's (recreated with excruciating accuracy in Andromache Chalfant's set, down to the rolls of industrial-grade foil sheets and bits of dropped hamburger bun under the grill), maybe a little grimier and dustier than you'd expect even in the hands of the slacker teenagers who probably run it. Expectations seem to be confirmed as you meet the day-shift crew of seventeen-year-olds: Ruckus (aka Colin Rucker), a bit of a bully, newly promoted to manager with its associated twenty-five-cent per hour raise, mostly because his dad owns the franchise; Marco, a slightly more sensitive type who chafes at Ruckus's trash-talking but is still happy to share a joint with him; and Emma, the hyper-responsible smart girl who just wants to get through her shift. Clark has a sharp eye for the power dynamics of adolescents, like the way a slightly hostile friendship between two boys shifts slightly when a girl walks into the room.
But it quickly starts to become evident that while these may be ordinary suburban teenagers slogging their way through an ordinary dead-end job, their "ordinary" and ours have some pretty consequential differences. Theirs, for example, includes air strikes.
Because their New Jersey is currently the front line of an ongoing war against a nebulous enemy (or set of enemies—the exact nature of "them" is vague in a way that is sometimes productively menacing and sometimes frustrating), where simply leaving the house and traveling to one's dead-end fast-food job very well might mean coming face-to-face with a shoot-out on the local highway. And the bleeding man who comes through the door of the restaurant after an explosion could be anyone: enemy soldier, undercover agent, or exactly who he says he is—an ordinary guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. And what if there's someone else after him?
The war's been going on since these kids were nine or ten years old; though rumors fly about possible cease-fires or surrenders, new draftees are still getting called up—something Ruckus, who's about to turn eighteen, is excited about. And as the play goes on, the omnipresence of war and its incredible, destructive impact on all three kids—not to mention the gunshot intruder—becomes clearer and clearer. All of their families—to widely differing extents—have been deformed; all of them live with the constant presence of fear and rage and suspicion with no acceptable outlet for any of those emotions. So it's simultaneously no wonder at all, and utterly horrifying, that when they get a chance to engage with someone who is both a genuine outsider and quite possibly a genuine threat, all of what's buried comes gushing out, in ways both predictable and unexpected. Fear spurs manipulation; anger generates violence; and as everyone involved gets more desperate, it becomes harder and harder to predict how anyone's going to behave second by second.
And though I can certainly fault specifics of structure (the way in which each major character gets a storytelling monologue to reveal a key piece of personal history feels a bit too schematic) or storytelling choices (I wanted just a little more concreteness to the knowledge about the war), the emotional, visceral impact of the piece as it builds—and builds, and just never stops building, through Trip Cullman's highly kinetic staging—is incredibly powerful, and extremely disturbing. It's a dark, often violent, and scary world these kids live in, yet it's completely normal to them. Clark, director Cullman, and the three actors playing the Dougal's staff (Philip Ettinger as Ruckus, Aja Naomi King as Emma, and the always interesting Tobias Segal as Marco) strike the right mixture of constantly ratcheting up tension and easing back into matter-of-fact moments of relative normality—though, again, the gap between what these characters consider normal and what we, the audience, do is constantly present as well.
The odds are that almost no one who sees this play will have ever lived as a civilian in a war zone, and while I don't know that Clark intended to draw specific parallels to the parts of the world where, for more than eight years now, hundreds of thousands of civilians have lived just that way in their homes, I couldn't help thinking about them. Edgewise chillingly and vividly shows us what it could be like. I found it profoundly disturbing, but in a meaningful and important way.
It's not a perfect play, but Eliza Clark is definitely a young playwright to watch. And in this beautifully constructed production, thought out and executed with precision in all its scenic and staging elements (from the way the space and seating are configured down to the well-staged transitions between scenes and some of the best fight choreography—by Thomas Schall—that I've ever seen up close) is an exciting testament to the way new plays should be realized.