nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
January 15, 2010
When I was a teenager, Disney's Aladdin came out. A heart-warming tale of love crossing the divide between rich and poor, the one thing I remember most about the film is hearing a subliminal voice instructing the viewer to "take off your clothes." It was then that I was forced to confront the awful truth that G-rated entertainment is often created by people with R-rated minds. And while not every animator, puppeteer, and circus clown is a predator in disguise, they do presumably carry the same innate desires, beliefs, and nasty habits that the rest of us in the "real world" have. Stick two of these people in an office for the Christmas holiday, trapped together by foul weather and professional deadlines, and you've got the stuff drama is made of.
Rough Sketch is set in the imaginarium of Doodle Ranch, an animation studio located somewhere even colder and snowier than New York. The location, well adorned by designer Peter Feuchtwanger with all the man-child trappings one associates with professional cartoonists, serves as the arena for a "creative conflict" that attempts to work like a philosophical Odd Couple. Hunkered down in the space, beautifully divided by an old-style vending machine, are Dex and Barbara, two animators with opposite personalities and competing world views. Think Walt Disney and Bertolt Brecht in opposing cubicles, with the fate of an over-budget cartoon about coffee beans at stake, and you're on the right track.
Unfortunately for Rough Sketch, the play's title more than illuminates the problems nagging at this quirky script. Certainly a work that could grow into what I imagine writer Shawn Nacol had in mind, as it stands now, Rough Sketch is just that: an unclear theatre piece that puts too much weight on its philosophical underpinnings while forgetting to remind the audience why anyone should care. Not that it doesn't get some things right. Nacol's work here can be incredibly funny (the surprising lead up to a sexual encounter is a highlight), and he clearly has a way with creating deeply flawed personalities that are nonetheless interesting to follow. Nacol, aided by director Ian Morgan, also writes unique physical theatre, using movement as a visual embodiment of the pushing and pulling that exists in every human relationship. However, at Doodle Ranch Studios, the stakes never seem high enough to warrant two hours of live drama. Who ever comes out on top (Dex's longing to give children hope vs. Barbara's attempts at shocking her pint-sized audience into facing reality), the final result will still be another over-budget feature film. It doesn't help that both characters eventually employ sabotage and violence in an attempt to get their way, a tactic that while funny, works to further undercut any emotional support the audience may be inclined to give. When the play comes to a rather shocking end, I was surprised, though not swayed to feel one way or the other. Add to this some very long diatribes about hope vs. cynicism, coupled with technical terms that are never really explained, and you're left with a play more confusing and muddled than it is engaging.
The overall lack of dramatic interest generated by Rough Sketch is a bit of a shame, especially considering what it could have been when coupled with the two very strong performances of Matthew Lawler and Tina Benko. As the initially bright-eyed Dex, Lawler is never as bumbling and oblivious as on the surface his character appears to be. Though Dex lives on a diet of vending machine garbage and sleeps under his desk, Lawler refuses to let this overrun his character, giving equal space and attention to the legendary artistic skill and professional commitment that overwhelmed Dex's first marriage. Matching Lawler is Benko, who offers up a layered and multi-faceted portrayal of the austere and fragile Barbara. Benko, whom I remember from her very good work on the show Brotherhood, is most impressive here in the methodical way she allows her guard to drop, revealing the insides of a person who at some point would like a hug, though only after she's finished getting exactly what she wants.
It is worth noting that as a reviewer, sometimes I receive a script to take home. I don't always read them, but in this case I did look over the first couple pages. At the play's expense, I think, a few items were left out that would have been beneficial to the viewing audience. Specifically, I'm referring to Barbara's introduction as written (more "military precision" and less manic) as well as the large, digital clock, an object that looms prominently in the dialog and yet was absent from the set. While certainly in every play, things get altered in the transition from page to stage, in these two instances, the play's overall clarity was affected, something this script could not afford to lose.
[Editor's Note: There is definitely some controversy about the subliminal messages possibly contained in Aladdin. An interesting article on the subject can be found here.]