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The Changing Room

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 4, 2011

If you want to experience the power of theatre—to really understand what an exemplary ensemble of actors and other creative artists can do under the firm hand of a masterful theatre director—then look no further than T. Schreiber Studio, where company founder Terry Schreiber's splendid production of David Storey's play The Changing Room is currently on view. It's a riveting, absorbing, clear production of a remarkable and challenging play. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Storey's subject is not an obvious one for the theatre: The Changing Room is about a mid-level rugby team in the North of England in the early 1970s. The setting is the eponymous changing room (we'd call it a locker room here in America). Act I takes place just before a match on a bitterly cold day. Act II happens just before and during half-time. Act III, as you've surmised, completes the cycle, after the game has finished. There's not particularly a plot or even much of a narrative, apart from the game's natural structure that gives the play its form. Unlike the rugby match that it tracks, The Changing Room isn't about winning or even about how the game is played; Storey is instead investigating the interactions of a team, a group of men who are both as united and as stratified as the greater society they live in.

The first act, which finds them arriving for today's match, bantering and doing warm-ups and eventually changing into their uniforms, introduces us to the play's many characters. It's at once highly personal—as we get to meet the players and observe some of their individual idiosyncracies—and oddly dehumanizing—for all of the men strip naked as they switch from street clothes to rugby gear; we watch them as if they've been dropped into a pit, more-or-less interchangeable ingredients for an event that will make much more money for the team's owner than for any of the players down here. (Note that the nudity is casual and non-sexual: these men undress and dress the way most men would under these circumstances, mindful of the need for privacy in such a public setting.)

Gears shift dramatically in the middle act, as Storey moves focus to a few specific characters. We spend a long time with Sir Frederick Thornton, the team's owner, and Harry Riley, the changing room attendant; the interplay between the topmost and bottom-most rungs of the rugby organizational ladder is illuminating. We also contend with the serious injury of one the players, Kendal; these are the play's most intimate and emotional moments, as we witness the fairly heroic ministrations of Luke, the team trainer, and Sandford, his assistant.

The final act caps the play. Little is resolved; just like a day in real life, stuff happens but God and the devil are in all the details; little that's momentous transpires. The closest analog may be Chekhov, but mostly in terms of how Storey's drama feels, probing so deftly and smartly and thoughtfully into the souls of so many people, bracingly but fleetingly.

From the rigorous pre-game ritual to the tiny telling moments that pervade each man's un/dressing routine, Schreiber and this ensemble of actors (for they are all men; no women in this play) have done an extraordinary job in creating fully-formed, organic, believable characters; the craft here is simply breathtaking. The actors portraying the team's members are Eric Percival, Matthew Ballinger, Marcin Paluch, Mike Dazé, Luke Guldan, David Donahoe, Lowell Byers, Brian Podnos, Sean Gallagher, Justin Noble, Nick Fesette, Edwin Sean Patterson, Joshua Sienkiewicz, Edward Campbell, Matt Watson, John B. McCann, and Leajato Amara Robinson. To single any of them out would do a disservice to their excellence in creating so convincingly a band of teammates. Peter Judd (Harry), Edward Franklin (Sir Frederick), Rick Forstmann (Mackendrick, Sir Frederick's second-in-command), Randy Miles (Luke), and Eliud Kauffman (Sandford) all contribute equally expert performances as well. Judd and Franklin serve to anchor the play, with the former's plodding but unceasing approach to myriad chores and the latter's easy noblesse oblige complementing each other quite brilliantly.

The play's design is up to Schreiber's usual high standard, featuring a stunningly naturalistic set by Hal Tine, similarly realistic costumes by Anne Wingate, and evocative lighting and sound by Dennis Parichy and Andy Cohen, respectively. Page Clements has guided the cast toward authentic-sounding North England accents. And special attention must be paid to makeup designer Amanda Donelan, who has achieved remarkable results making the players' various bruises and injuries look real under stage lights in close quarters.

The professionalism of this production of The Changing Room is unstinting. I don't know why anyone would pay five times as much to see a lumbering work-in-progress on Broadway when you can see stellar theatre in its cleanest and purest form here at the Schreiber for $20. This is drama that reaches the heart and the soul. Don't miss it.