nytheatre.com review by Nathaniel Kressen
October 7, 2010
In the exceptional new play Dramatis Personae, three writers become witnesses to a drawn-out hostage crisis in Lima, Peru. At rise, a bomb has shattered the windows in the apartment belonging to Lucas, an acclaimed novelist who has intentionally retreated from the limelight. With him are two aspiring authors: Ben, a longtime friend and compulsive jokester, and Marla, a brooding fiction writer who is sleeping with Ben but pining for Lucas. From the window, they can see straight into the Prime Minister's residence where the hostages are being held, among them Marla's ex-husband. It is not the crisis, however, that holds the writers' attention, but their own works-in-progress.
At any given time, their minds and hearts are preoccupied to the point where it gets difficult for them to distinguish reality from fantasy. Lucas feels guilty for basing his novel on the childhood death of his brother and refuses to write another word. Ben seems bent on writing the shallowest subject matter he can find, yet nonetheless finds himself stifled. Marla invents a scene of domestic violence but cannot figure out the cue for it to happen. Eventually we gather that each has a major regret in their past that they have yet to overcome. They meet initially to motivate one another creatively, but end up accomplishing much more. Caught within a seemingly dead-end country defined by evening curfews, food rations, and commonplace bombings, the three help one another let go of the past and find the clarity of purpose to move forward.
Playwright Gonzalo Rodriguez Risco does a brilliant job depicting the writing process. Through his three principal characters, he explores why people choose to write, what people choose to write about, and the shifting sense of self that accompanies those choices. He explores the danger zone where art imitates life a little too closely; the tangents one must follow before discovering the proper direction forward; the separation a writer occasionally feels from the real world, as if his empathy is used up on the characters of his imagination. Late in the play, Marla has a sudden moment of insight: she looks out the window and wonders aloud what is wrong with the three of them, to spend so much time worrying about fictional characters when there are real people at risk. While they find no easy answer, it is undeniable that they are, and will continue to be, servants to their craft.
Erik Pearson's direction particularly deserves mention. Risco's script offers both profound depths of emotion and heightened moments of humor. Pearson gives every moment its due attention and blends them together seamlessly. Their production is an exciting, surprising ride that touches on political, human, and creative concerns, yet never seems topical or forced. I sincerely hope the two collaborate again in the future; there is a shared rhythm here that makes for fantastic theatre.
The cast is perfectly suited to their characters and gives exceptional performances, including two actors who take on the many roles of the writers' imaginations. Playing the most complex character, Felix Solis as Lucas delivers a nuanced and compelling portrayal of a man battling his demons. One of the most compelling moments of the play comes when he describes how he views the public reception of his novel. What started as a draft he thought would never see the light of day became an unexpected megahit. Recently, he discovered a copy in a used bookstore selling for less than the price of a candy bar. He says that every time he gets an idea for a new book, he walks to see if his old idea is still rotting there.
The design elements are compelling and cohesive, featuring outstanding contributions from Michael Locher (set), Amy Clark (costumes), Burke Brown (lighting), Nathan A. Roberts (composer/sound), and Katherine Akiko Day (props). The apartment they've created is fascinating, revealing the sterile identifiers of a high-priced condo now blown to bits. Also breathtaking is the designers' representation of the world outside. Beyond the window lies a brick wall embedded with miniature glass blocks—the effect is that of seeing another building at a distance, perhaps across the wide avenue leading up to the mansion under siege. At one point music blasts from the street below, and the echoes feel absolutely natural. Lighting choices are evocative, and set the tone for scenes wonderfully.
Dramatis Personae is a fully realized production, at once whimsical and expertly thought out. There's something special in that. Strongest recommendation to catch this one at Cherry Lane Theatre while it lasts.