nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
May 5, 2005
Form prevails over content in Kenneth Nowell’s new play, The Fall. Which is too bad, because it has an interesting premise: a grieving daughter, suspecting that her father had a hand in her mother’s death, seeks revenge. Throw in the dead mother’s ghost, a pair of sticky love triangles, and more anti-depressants than you can shake a stick at, and you’ve got the ingredients for a promising drama/thriller. But, Nowell elects to go a different route, preferring instead to focus on a heap of back story, and then telling it mostly out of order. The result is confusing and disappointingly unengaging.
Jill is grieving her mother’s death from a long, unspecified illness. Jill is understandably upset when she learns that her father has married Mom’s sister (i.e., Jill’s aunt), Mary, and goes into a deeper funk. When Mom’s ghost shows up to implicate Father in her death, Jill is sent into a depressive catatonic state. By the time she comes out of it, in order to carry out her mother’s wish of revenge on Father, Jill has another crisis on her hands: her husband, Richard, and her sister, Lisa, have fallen in love.
If you detect echoes of Hamlet in the plot synopsis, they are intentional. In the program notes Nowell explains that he has written The Fall as a way of exploring “how some central questions of Hamlet would play out in the modern world… I wanted to see how someone would deal with a poltergeist in our own time when people have no belief whatsoever in the reality of ghosts.” To which I say: since when? It seems to me that the creation and success of countless films and television shows dealing with supernatural subject matter over the past several years—including The Sixth Sense, the two parts of The Ring, and Medium—attest to the fact that people have plenty of belief in (or, at least, curiosity about) the reality of ghosts. That none of the characters in those works lives in New York is no coincidence. New Yorkers, who are the denizens of The Fall, are notoriously immune to the supernatural. Perhaps Nowell means them—and not “people” in general—specifically.
Aside from Hamlet, Nowell’s inspirations for The Fall seem to be largely cinematic. As in the films Memento and 21 Grams, Nowell fractures his narrative and tells it out of order. I assume this device is employed to help illustrate Jill’s hallucinatory/dreamlike state-of-mind. But it ends up being to the detriment of the piece, because the device becomes the star of The Fall—thus diminishing any power the story might have, and preventing the audience from following it clearly, or connecting with (and caring about) the characters. Plus, Nowell spends so much time on Jill’s history—how she met and courted her husband; how her mother got sick and deteriorated, etc.—that he makes it unclear what The Fall is really about: loss or revenge. By the time Mother’s spirit appears (almost an hour into the show) and reveals her motives (almost ninety minutes into the show), her entire subplot feels unnaturally tacked on.
Director Kate Marks makes a lot of bold choices, but, unfortunately, does not make The Fall any easier to follow. In keeping with the hallucinatory nature of the play—and in order, I assume, to keep it moving quickly (The Fall has enough scenes, including montage sequences, to rival the average film script)—Marks does away with hand props (thus, making the actors mime everything from smoking cigarettes to sitting on chairs), costume changes (they wear the same clothes the entire show, despite covering a seemingly broad time period), and clear light changes (sometimes they indicate a scene change, sometimes they don’t). From a thematic standpoint, these choices are understandable; but, in practice, they come off as clumsy and amateurish—like the producers ran out of tech time or couldn’t afford to buy props or clothing. To her credit, Marks attempts to use projections to indicate time and place. But, the location of the projection screen—upstage right, against the wall—is almost always in direct opposition to where the on-stage action is, thus creating massive confusion as to where the audience should be looking. I applaud Marks’s ambition and bravery, but everything she contributes to The Fall just seems to make it more confusing.
At the center of all this is a cast of talented actors, all of whom try to make the most of this opportunity. Vanessa Daniels, Will Ellis, Nisi Sturgis, Susan McBrien, Jerry Mond, Beth Glover, and Erika Ewing all do the best they can under these circumstances, but they all look like they’ve been left adrift at sea without a life preserver. They each deserve better.