nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 26, 2005
In her new play Chopper, Leah Ryan takes a look at three young people in crisis. Kathleen has been on her own since the age of 16; we don't learn much about the problematic family life that she escaped, but we do know that she's now stuck in a thankless job at Rite-Aid (where her bosses don't "get" her), surviving on cigarettes and beer as she struggles to make ends meet. Her roommate is her childhood friend Emily, whose problems may or may not include some kind of learning disorder; her parents institutionalized her at about the same time that Kathleen left home, and Emily went directly from the hospital to Kathleen's apartment, and they've been living together ever since. She's a dishwasher at a local restaurant, but can't seem to hold onto her money at all. As the play begins, Kathleen and Emily are in desperate need of back rent—to the tune of $700—or they will be evicted.
Kathleen's ex-boyfriend (of long-standing) is Mick, a wannabe rock star who lives in his car. He's just returned to the northeastern college town where the play is set after an abortive trip to Texas which ended in a few-days' stay in Trenton, New Jersey.
One of the valuable things Ryan does here is remind us how simple it is to suddenly become homeless. These kids—for they are still very young, despite the tribulations facing them—are about to slip through society's safety net. Neither Kathleen nor Mick have any family connections to speak of, while Emily has been more or less disowned by her wealthy parents. Lacking skills, networks, and resources, they're headed toward the margins. Nothing gets resolved during Chopper for Kathleen, Emily, and Mick; nothing much changes for them: Ryan's letting us have a look at them before they become invisible.
We do get to watch these three indulge in their dreams. The opening scene, between Kathleen and Emily, is a conversation about their crushes on, respectively, Chopper Dave the traffic guy on TV, and weatherman Keith Kane. Kathleen's fantasy world is both more and less constricted than Emily's—she's perfectly willing to let Mick believe Emily's lie that Kathleen has a new boyfriend named Dave, for example; she's also oftentimes unwilling to call things—or more properly, people—what they are: Mick is sometimes Fred, and Emily's college student pickup Craig is, a lot of the time, Chad or Greg.
For his part, Craig is Emily's dream realized: an emissary from the outside world very much the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie—a vision of a way out that can never come to pass. Like Jim O'Connor in that more famous play, Craig is a nice, ordinary young man—nothing more or less than that. If he's perhaps a little bit chastened and changed as a result of his encounter with Emily, Kathleen, and Mick, he's almost certainly going to be fundamentally unscathed by it—his world will keep turning as it always has, in a very different orbit from theirs.
Chopper paints its characters so vividly that I wanted more to happen in it; I see now that Ryan's design is, shrewdly, necessarily inert. (I'm still puzzled by her insistence that the play takes place in 1980, when nothing but the prices of items seems to reflect that period at all.) Director Ed Cheetham helps make Chopper vivid, but he seems hampered by the very boxy playing area (Ensemble Studio Theatre's small upstairs space): what could he and set designer Christina Aprea do to liberate their actors from the square confines they're relegated to?
The performances are exemplary. Jen Albano and Christiane Szabo do splendid work as Kathleen and Emily, the former delivering the vulnerability and resourcefulness of her character, and the latter locating unexpected reserves of strength underneath the flighty surface of hers. Paul Megna finds the nobility in the irresponsible Mick—when he makes a pass at a heroic gesture near the end of the play, it's impossible not to be moved. As Craig, the stranger adrift temporarily in this sad world, Jason Kaminsky is outstanding, the stable center of the piece and an enormously sympathetic one, despite his need to move away from it.
The production represents the second consecutive triumph for Wildfire Productions, the young theatre company that has mounted Chopper. They've found a worthy script and presented it with respect and care; they've made us look, for a little while anyway, at people who we are otherwise inclined to look away from. How necessary is that?