nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 14, 2010
Metaphor and abstraction—tools of poetry—don't always work in a theatrical context. The press release for Gary Winter's new play Cooler informs us that he was inspired by his "despair during the Bush years over the collapse of checks and balances and the failure of the mainstream media to report truthfully." Winter says, "I wanted to write about the loss of idealism, which I think is the flip side of oppression, and, arguably, as noxious as oppression itself."
Those ideas are what drew me to see Cooler, but unfortunately Winter's work here is so oblique that I found it difficult to read his intention in the play itself; in fact, I had to go back to the press release to remember what it was that I was expecting in this work.
The setting—I'm referring now exclusively to what I experienced, as opposed to what got clarified when I read about in the publicity materials afterward—is a room, apparently a cellar of some kind, littered with detritus, mostly pop culture artifacts like books and records. In this place live four people, three women and one man. The man has a job at the zoo and is also apparently some kind of war veteran. The women seem trapped in the building that contains this room. One of them is more pragmatic than the others, seemingly in charge. The other two riff on the pop culture artifacts they live with; one of them shows up in a long wig and announces that she's Cher. This woman also wants to couple with the man.
The title and the layered clothing they wear sort of cue us to the idea that this is a chilly place. It feels apocalyptic and remote and somehow incomplete. But the non-sequitur dialogue, reminiscent of works by Mac Wellman and his disciples, detaches us from understanding what's really going on here.
There's a scene in the center of Cooler where all four act out a play (the dialogue didn't immediately register as being something I knew; perhaps Winter has written a faux naturalistic drama within his play?). It's the only time the characters seem in synch with one another, to be really listening to each other. I thought: a message of the play is that we only really communicate in "un-real" circumstances; in our daily lives, our thoughts and ideas fly around and at one another rather than landing and achieving comprehension. Maybe this is one of Winter's themes, I don't know.
The play is staged by director Dylan McCullough in tennis-court style, with the audience on two sides of the central playing area. This configuration means we can't see the entire "stage" at any time; we have to choose where to look and what to look at. This seemed to reinforce the theme of the difficulty of communication.
The play moves to the Chocolate Factory's second floor for its final few moments. This disturbance, which I was looking forward to, proves anticlimactic. Too little happens in this epilogue, and there doesn't seem to be a compelling reason for what does happen to unfold in a new place. I was confused.
Looking back now at Winter's artistic statement, I can see where the oppression theme fits in to what he's written. But sitting through Cooler, I failed to make that connection. I was aware of tedium and frustration (at not being able to make sense of what was happening in the room), and not in a good way. And I think I'm a pretty savvy, attentive theatre-goer.
So I have to say that while Cooler may mean a lot to its creators, very little of that meaning was ultimately imparted to me. To return to my initial point, sometimes metaphor and abstraction are the enemies, rather than the allies, of clear and thoughtful story-telling.