The Hallway Trilogy
nytheatre.com review by Nathaniel Kressen
February 15, 2011
Part 1 - Rose
With The Hallway Trilogy, playwright Adam Rapp seeks to portray three distinct eras in New York City—the 1950s, the 2000s, and the 2050s—by setting three distinct plays in the hallway of a Lower East Side tenement. In Rose, the first installment, Rapp brings the McCarthy Era to the foreground via a constantly ringing telephone, a seemingly innocuous prankster, and the assorted suspicions and paranoias of the residents. Everyone has something to lose, and it seems that this afternoon may be the one that seals their fate. However, this tension is frustratingly diffused by the play’s stilted dramatic structure. Hallway interchanges offer compelling moments but fail to build into a rhythm. By the play’s end, I was left wondering if a study in character and period were the limits of the playwright’s intention with Rose, as so many of his other works drive to a resounding conclusion.
Rose, the titular character, is not a resident of the building, but an actress-turned-suburban-housewife. Two years ago she was called back for a Broadway revival of Anna Christie and met Eugene O’Neill at the audition. She had a mental breakdown after losing the role, but a kind letter from the playwright sparked her recovery. At the time of the play, she has tracked the envelope’s return address to this tenement where she looks to refute the morning’s news of O’Neill’s death. Despite the residents’ repeated assurances that their misanthropic landlord “Gene” is not the writer she is looking for, she camps out in their hallway to thank him for his letter.
While there, Rose meets a Russian immigrant named Orest, a budding coronet player facing rampant anti-Communist sentiment regardless of his political convictions. Diametrically opposed is Jerry, a graduate of Princeton who shunned his formal education to work among “the common man” in the city’s subway tunnels. He is obsessed with another of the building’s residents, Mary, who may or may not have attempted suicide after her high-profile adultery was written up in the newspaper. Factor in a widowed Midwestern school teacher, an overly charming gangster, and a spastic jokester known only as Marbles, and one gets a sense of the broad range of characters introduced here.
To Rapp’s credit (he also directs), each of his characters are three-dimensional and have a definable purpose on stage. Their distinct vocabularies and concerns combine to paint a sprawling picture of the era and location. However, there remains the feeling that a more unifying climax is needed to justify their story on stage.
The cast performs capably, most notably through their use of body language. As with the text, each character is clearly defined through the actors’ use of unspoken mannerisms. Louis Cancelmi brings a much welcome urgency to the play through his manic yet overly articulate depiction of Jerry. Katherine Waterston as Rose is heartbreakingly sincere.
Production design looks to have been a massive undertaking, fully rotating the Rattlestick Theater to seat the audience along the entry wall. Beowulf Boritt’s outstanding set design rewards the effort. The hallway itself stretches from the usual Rattlestick stage across the former seating area, with a multi-level stairwell, an accessible fire escape, an upright piano, and no less than four operational apartment doors, through which we can glimpse details characteristic of each occupant. Costumes by Jessica Pabst match his effort, both stunning to look at and evocative of character.
Dramatic structure and pacing issues aside, Rose bodes well for the next two installments of The Hallway Trilogy. It is well-written, compellingly-acted, and expertly designed.
Part 2- Paraffin
Paraffin, the second installment of Adam Rapp’s The Hallway Trilogy, is a powerhouse dark comedy depicting a handful of residents on the day of the 2003 New York City blackout. It is also a welcome reminder of Rapp’s strengths as a playwright. Whereas Rose, the first play in the trilogy, felt like a sprawling depiction of period and character, Paraffin is a cohesive journey that is unapologetically dystopic, romantic, and haunting. It is a play that actively seeks answers to the biggest questions in its characters’ lives, and offers a fierce, resounding conclusion that sticks with its audience long after leaving the theater.
Set fifty years after Rose, the L.E.S. tenement hallway has fallen into disrepair. One of the fluorescent lights is missing its cover, several of the apartment doors have been tagged with graffiti, and the windows above each doorway have been boarded up with mismatching plywood. This unsavory appearance is only accentuated by the technological “improvements” to the building, such as an emergency floodlight box mounted on the wall. In a fitting reference to the swell of internationally-owned property in contemporary New York, we learn that the building is now owned by an unseen Japanese businessman.
In Rapp’s depiction of the 1950s, there was a tangible, if forced, sense of community among the building’s residents. The city was their chosen home and folks were friendly toward one another. Here, however, one gets the sense that it is a harsh city and that everyone is foremost concerned with their own survival. Even courteous interchanges carry an underlying apprehension, as if the speakers are looking for the earliest opportunity to retreat back into seclusion.
The harshness of Rapp’s 2003 is brought front and center from the earliest moment, with junkie guitarist Denny Kellen lying unconscious outside his apartment door, half-naked and having soiled himself. A neighbor alerts his pregnant wife Margo, and she tries to get him off to work. She forces him to undress and clean in the hallway, upholding her prior ultimatum that he’s not allowed to enter the apartment until he’s sober. (Content note: There is full nudity and an all-too-realistic depiction of the mess he’s made.) He leaves her with a promise to set everything right, but instead sneaks into the apartment after she leaves to steal an old wedding present that might cover his debt to a Polish loan shark.
Before he can escape, he’s stopped by his brother Lucas, confined to a wheelchair after serving in Afghanistan. Lucas, we learn, holds a burning love for his sister-in-law and offers outright to kill Denny for the pain he causes. In the meantime, he delivers highly-articulate insults to anyone within earshot. This lands him in hot water with an Israeli married couple, obviously having a hard time building a life for themselves in America. As the neighbors’ confrontation hits its height, the electricity cuts out.
By this point, Rapp has effectively shifted all focus from the circumstance of the play (the theater’s press release lets us know the blackout is coming) to the intensely personal trials of its characters. The result is that the blackout occurs as unexpectedly for us as for those on stage, certainly no easy task.
Without revealing details, Rapp goes on to explore how the darkness can create a skewed reality where no one is held accountable, and the ways in which people take advantage. The truths that someone might confess, or the actions they’d never otherwise take. The fleeting sense of camaraderie among strangers. The play’s extended blackout scene paints a multi-dimensional picture of human nature that is continually surprising, and absolutely compelling to watch.
Direction by Daniel Aukin is stellar throughout, both utilizing the rhythm of the text and finding extended movement sequences to craft a fully realized, mesmerizing production. The acting company shines here, more so than in Rose, perhaps a result of Paraffin’s contemporary resonance. Particularly noteworthy are Nick Lawson as the charming yet brutal gangster Leshik, Julianne Nicholson as the conflicted mother-to-be Margo, Jeremy Strong as the invalid veteran Lucas, and William Apps as the tragically incomplete Denny.
Set design by Beowulf Boritt and costumes by Jessica Pabst continue to shine. Lighting design by Tyler Micoleau is stunning. Sound design by Eric Shimelonis lends a strong sense of the chaos raging in the streets outside.
Part 3 - Nursing
Simply put, Nursing is a stunning work of theater. As the third and final installment of Adam Rapp’s The Hallway Trilogy, it is the most theoretical and philosophical of the plays, but also the most visceral. Whereas Rose was little more than a reminder of Rapp’s ability to draw compelling characters, and Paraffin depicted the contemporary dystopia we’ve come to expect from one of his plays, Nursing is a completely new offering from a playwright at the top of his game.
At rise, a red velvet curtain is closed across the stage. A tour guide welcomes us to the Museum of Nursing, which, in the disease-free 2053, portrays the obsolete profession of health care through live re-enactment. When the curtain opens, we see a male nurse injecting a syringe into a patient’s arm. The patient, who we will know as Lloyd, writhes on his mattress, spewing blood and shouting curses. The tour guide directs our focus to the plexiglass wall separating us from the patient and assures us that we are completely safe. The disease the patient is suffering from, she tells us, is The Plague. Once he recovers they will inject him with Cholera, followed by Black Frost – a disease of Rapp’s invention, the symptoms of which are truly haunting.
Through Lloyd’s interactions with the nursing staff, the armed soldier guarding him, and a few visitors from his former life, we learn that he is a war veteran still reeling from the atrocities he committed. Once a promising writer, he has been reduced to a self-loathing sociopath whose only ambition is to die. As if to convince everyone of his insanity, including himself, he bounds about his cell like a rabid animal—rubbing his genitals on the plexiglass divider, climbing the furniture, and eating everything from handfuls of pills to the leaves of a dying houseplant. His only regret in volunteering for the museum, we learn, is that they keep saving him.
In the world at large, there is an underground movement seeking to reintroduce disease to the population. Their belief is that without suffering there can be no empathy, and without empathy there can be no humanity. It is hard to expand on this thought without revealing key plot points. Suffice it to say that a stirring epilogue brings this moralistic question to the forefront, and provides a more immediate context for the futuristic world of Rapp’s imagination.
Logan Marshall-Green is astounding as the patient Lloyd, delivering one of the most raw, immersive performances I have seen on stage. He is equally at ease overdosing on happy pills as somberly playing the piano, equally convincing in his suffering as in his fascination with the children’s book Green Eggs and Ham. He embodies, rather than portrays, a man completely at odds with himself. Intelligent but longing to be ignorant. Self-punishing but incapable of letting go of his guilt. His performance alone is well worth the ticket price.
Trip Cullman’s direction is suited perfectly to Rapp’s material. The pace is relentless, the plot twists unexpected, the performances from the cast of the highest caliber. Despite the plexiglass divider, the futuristic setting, and the topical subject matter, Cullman mines the script for its most personal elements, and stages them so vividly that Nursing becomes a fable for our time and place, not one forty years from now.
Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt and costume design by Jessica Pabst continue to thrive, capping off the most ambitious—and successful—achievements in production design we’re likely to see off-Broadway for some time. Lighting design by Tyler Micoleau and music/sound design by Eric Shimelonis shine more noticeably here than in the other two plays of the trilogy, as Cullman actively employs them to periodically cut or heighten the tension on stage.
If I were to only recommend one play of The Hallway Trilogy, it would be Nursing. It is the most unique for its subject matter and production design, and offers the most dynamic imagery and language of the three. If possible, however, it pays to see the full set. While Rapp’s writing thrives in each script, it is in startlingly different ways. The directors lend their own aesthetics to their respective plays, and the ensemble of actors craft stunning portrayals across the board. It proves fascinating to link the performers between plays. In some cases, they are nearly unrecognizable. The Hallway Trilogy offers them the rare opportunity to perform all new plays in repertory (as opposed to a contemporary play opposite a classical text); even more unusually, they are all world premieres by the same playwright. The actors absolutely rise to the challenge, filling Adam Rapp’s text with energy, enthusiasm, and emotion.