nytheatre.com review by Mitchell Conway
January 13, 2012
After seeing the first marvelous show in Mac Rogers' Honeycomb Trilogy, I am eagerly awaiting the next two in the series at the Secret Theatre in the coming months. If you would enjoy an intelligent domestic sci-fi that is as exciting and funny as it is profound and stirring, you should definitely see Advance Man.
In the near future, three years after a team of astronauts has returned from the first mission to Mars, the day they've been preparing for has almost arrived. We watch the action unfold in a simple living room, bare of extra ornamentation, belonging to Bill Cooke, leader of the team, and his family. His wife, Amelia, has hired a private investigator out of suspicion he has been seeing someone from his team. The investigator bugs the living room for a small party to learn what she can, but finds out more than she bargained for. Bill and Amelia's daughter Ronnie is in trouble at school for beating up a boy who was picking on her younger brother, Abbie. Although in elevated circumstances, they are confronting typical family problems. But Conner, an astronaut who returned from Mars in a strange state, like someone severely autistic or mentally handicapped, is also now a member of their family. He stands in his favorite corner and all the other family members help take care of him. He speaks less than twenty words, along with a handful of phrases.
The adept rendering of the family dynamic is a large part of the success of this production. Those same everyday conflicts, then amplified by a world-scale ordeal, maintain their authenticity in the most unbelievable of circumstances. It is comical and revealing when a father demanding his daughter's cell phone and meeting resistance means mankind's salvation versus its continued self-destruction.
Sean Williams is brilliant as Bill, who, however charming and loving to his family, uses his calculating mind to manipulate those necessary, including his family, to accord with a grand vision of a new world. In a moment when Bill's demeanor totally shifts from the charismatic father he's been to a stern authoritative leader ready to do what is required, the room turns to ice. Williams lets us simultaneously see Bill's mask and how he molds it, without malice, but merely deliberately, determined to do what he believes to be right. Bill is the coincidence of knowledge and power in the same man. Bill's wife and son generally concede that "father knows best." But, it is his daughter, most like him, who resists the shift once she finally learns the plan.
Becky Byers is exceptional as the teenage Ronnie. Quick-witted and scheming: she is clearly her father's daughter. Byers balances angst and sarcasm with an awareness of her own power. When flirting with Raf, played by Abraham Makany, we see how she is experimenting with tricking people to get what she wants. The intelligence she inherited from her father can be used for good or evil. In a scene where her brother, played by David Rosenblatt, accuses her of spending the night getting "finger-blasted" it really seemed like a teenage brother-and-sister conversation, with love hidden amidst insults. Rosenblatt is touching as the shy, insecure young artist Abbie. He has developed a close relationship to the infant-like Conner, rendered with sincerity by Jason Howard. Howard is able with few words to show us exactly what Conner is taking in.
Kristen Vaughan is heartbreaking as the distraught, caring, virtually powerless, Amelia. When she cries out in desperation at her insolent daughter "One day I may not respect you right back," her anguish is both relatable and disappointing.
In scene transitions, bits of audio from the scientists' time in space can be overheard. They seem able to predict what one another will say and immediately jump in with solutions whenever another is confronting a problem, as with the astonishingly annoying millionaire Kip played by the giggle-worthy Brian Silliman. They are together on the deception, squeezing money from Kip without ever revealing the objective of their operations.
Rogers' writing is daring. The political is artfully embedded into the personal. He makes us question democracy when confronted with the possibility of utopia, but also indignant at the disregard of the majority's voice and individuality so readily. He uses repetition thoughtfully, like Bill's "It's ok if you feel like crying" back and forth with Ronnie, "Can I have your cell phone?" casually yet forcefully to each family member individually, or Conner's go-to phrase "Dinner is soon" throughout the play, with a new meaning every time he says it.
Jordana Williams' direction is nothing short of fantastic. I was with this play every moment. And I eagerly await what happens next in part two.