nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
May 31, 2005
Rob Ackerman’s new comedy, Disconnect, is a big surprise. It is a funny and ambitious work that examines how communication is crumbling in an age where methods of doing so are multiplying by the day. A big theme, to be sure, within which Ackerman explores several sub-themes, including:
- The dehumanizing effect of technology on people.
- The erosion of youthful idealism in the face of today’s consumer-driven corporate culture.
- How people unknowingly dominate and belittle their friends and family.
By now you’re probably thinking, “What’s so funny about all of that?” The answer is: its context. Ackerman chooses to sandwich all of this within the conventions of a drawing room comedy of manners. That he largely succeeds in making his points and scoring laughs is what makes Disconnect so impressive.
Corporate telecommunications consultant Steve and his wife, Patty, are preparing to have guests over for dinner: two strangers—a married couple, Jane and Fred—whom Steve met earlier in the day. Things start out well enough once they arrive, but as the wine begins to flow, everyone starts to open up. Confessions are made, and feet are firmly planted in mouths as politeness flies out the window. Patty strives to put on a good face for her guests, even though she questions her husband’s motives for inviting them over. Steve is secretly reeling from a pair of incidents that occurred on a recent business trip, including one involving his best friend, Artie. Jane, not a fan of small talk, prefers to cut right to the chase. “So, you’ve got some stuff to work out, don’t you Steve?” she asks after Steve has mentioned Artie for the umpteenth time, thus initiating the evening of frank and blunt talk to come. Fred, who is used to his wife’s interrogations, is relatively willing to open up about longstanding issues with his father that haunt him, even though he’d prefer to join Patty in putting on a nice, pleasant face.
Ackerman’s writing is sharp through most of Disconnect. Setting the play at a dinner party—which is not the ideal location for revelations of the deep, dark kind—is what makes it funny: much of what happens, while sincere and well-intentioned, is totally inappropriate. The characters spend a lot of Disconnect in squeamish, delightful discomfort. Ackerman also has fun with the theme of communication. Naturally, the person who is most in need of improved communication skills—Steve—is the one with the most on his mind. (Ironically, Steve’s business trip centers on a proposal he wrote about the possibility of 100% global cell phone connectivity—HA!) The only person Steve can talk to comfortably (and does through most of the party) is the one who isn’t there, Artie. This, of course, makes Steve look a little crazy to everyone else. The only place where Ackerman falters is at the play’s end, which is a tad too pat and rushed to feel completely satisfying. But, after giving us two hours of funny and thoughtful writing, the playwright can be forgiven for wanting to wrap things up tidily.
Director Connie Grappo modulates the play’s humor and drama wonderfully, making the constant shifts between the two believable and unforced. She navigates smooth transitions between Steve’s present and flashbacks to his business trip, and does excellent work with the actors. Under her direction, the five-person cast displays an exhilarating amount of teamwork and generosity with each other. Elizabeth Connors is right on the money as hostess-with-the-mostest Patty, suffering both her husband and her guests with an equal blend of dignity and caution. Matthew Boston convincingly portrays Steve’s dilemma(s) without coming off like a freak: in a role that could easily tip towards being unlikable, Boston keeps the audience’s sympathy firmly on his side. Brennan Brown does an equally good job handling Fred’s ambivalent feelings for his father, and semi-dodging his wife’s requests for full disclosure. As anti-authoritarian Artie, Lou Sumrall is terrific, giving Disconnect its backbone and conscience. But the standout is Tina Benko, whose quietly imperious performance as Jane threatens to steal the show every time she opens her mouth. Her magnetic combination of intelligence, dry wit, and sultriness is both alluring and riotous.
Disconnect is that rare show that takes its message—that humanity is not getting better at communicating, even while inventing new ways to do so—seriously, but does not take itself seriously. That may sound like splitting hairs, but it makes sense (and all the difference in the world) when watching the play. There are not many other shows around that can make you laugh and think at the same time, which is a doubly edifying experience in my book. Take advantage of this current opportunity to connect with Disconnect.