Caz Dies Alone
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 13, 2005
Caz Dies Alone is a sweet, sad, touching, funny, achingly intimate play: sitting in the audience, it really does feel like you're eavesdropping, or peeping through a keyhole, at actual people caught in actual moments of living their lives and being human. It's about two young men in their 20s, Mike and Tom. We don't know much about them except that they're somehow involved in show business (on the periphery; nobody's even close to famous here) and that they live together in a big underdeveloped loft in an outer borough (Brooklyn, I think). As the play begins—at a party that Mike and Tom have thrown for themselves at their apartment—Mike breaks the news that their intended third roommate has bailed out on them, and that they need to find a new one, fast.
By the next scene, they have done just that. Her name is Fran (short for Francesca, though I think the only way we know this is from the program). She's a wannabe dancer with a whiny voice just this side of really annoying; good-hearted but a little bit ditzy.
Eventually it becomes clear that Mike has become kind of infatuated with Fran, but he's totally unwilling/unable to do anything about it. He has a sort-of girlfriend, Jasmine; but the main reason he won't move on the Fran front is because of a "rooommate code" that exists in his head (if nowhere else). Meanwhile, after a night of drinking with (of all people) Jasmine, Fran admits to Tom that she has a crush on him, and after only a little bit of tentativeness, they act on her impulse. Tom is in a relationship—with Jane, a co-worker/friend who evolved into a girlfriend after a long platonic stretch.
What's great about Caz Dies Alone is the way this tangle of relationships is explored. We watch these characters, paired and grouped in various combinations, mostly at Mike and Tom's apartment but occasionally in more public settings. They talk; or more often they attempt to talk, but barely manage the meagerest of sentences; sometimes they don't talk at all. Caz zeroes in on the truth of communication, which is that people are mostly inarticulate but always saying something: this is a play about listening, about second-guessing, about missing connections; about the miracle of making a connection—a miracle because it's so darned hard to do. The greatest scenes in this play are the ones with the least amount of dialogue: Jane and Tom, awkwardly silent on a couch after a date, trying to decide when/if to make the first romantic move, gauging where they are in the relationship—is this the moment?—with strained eloquence that we can read on their faces even if they can't. Or Tom and Fran, on the night when she makes her pass at him. Or Tom and Jane again, at a bar, celebrating his performance at a poetry slam. Or Mike, by himself, trying to comprehend why Fran picked Tom over him, why Jasmine is going away, why he is apparently going to be alone forever. (I should mention that "Caz" is his nickname.)
Stuff happens and people move forward in time and maybe even make some progress, but ultimately little really changes for anyone in Caz Dies Alone. Which is precisely right: this is a play about the moments in between momentous events. Indeed, where the play falters (which it does only very rarely) is in trying to impose too pat an "ending" on its characters.
Now I need to say a word about process, because the way that Caz Dies Alone was created greatly informs its final state. Director Robert Davenport has adapted the methodologies of British playwright/director Mike Leigh, whereby the actors, under his guidance, improvise the characters and then devise situations and relationships for them. Davenport's crew made this play from the ground up in just eight weeks, which is remarkable in and of itself. But the raw immediacy that they've achieved is the real payoff--a very happy accident indeed (to borrow the apt name that Davenport has given his troupe), brought forth by hard work and splendid karma: great art bursting forth seemingly spontaneously from a fortuitous collision of personalities, minds, and spirits.
Of course, part of Davenport's genius is assembling the players, and the quintet responsible for Caz Dies Alone is formidable. Mike is played by Andrew Cassese, a veteran of the Revenge of the Nerds movies, who makes Mike kind of a Nerd ten years on—buttoned-up, self-contained, and terribly afraid. Lawrence Jansen is astonishing as Tom, letting us into this man's head like a dream interpreter: his is one of the finest performances in New York this season. The women—Anna Cody (Jasmine), Tricia McAlpin (Jane), and especially Laura Flanagan (Fran)—are equally impressive.
I've seen Davenport's two previous efforts, both created with the same techniques, neither nearly so satisfying. With Caz Dies Alone, he's nailed it, and proved how well his process can work.