a theatre, film & pop culture review
I hope we get to spend a hundred diseases together.
– Joan, Nursing
When you walk through a hallway, it’s with the knowledge, or the hope, that you’re walking towards something — a room, a person, an ideal. There’s a sense of optimism, purpose, or, at the very least, relief — relief that you’re almost there, wherever “there” may be. Adam Rapp‘s vision of the hallway offers no such easy relief. In his The Hallway Trilogy at Rattlestick Palywrights Theater, the typically transitional space offers only closed doors, one after another. Locked, closed doors. Rundown, grimy, locked closed doors in a Lower East Side tenement (thanks to Beowulf Boritt‘s über-realistic design) .
The trilogy spans a century in this one decrepit hallway, beginning with Rose in 1953. A young, troubled actress (sensitively portrayed by the always stellar Katherine Waterston) searches for the recently deceased Eugene O’Neill who once kindly offered her a bit of professional encouragement. What she finds instead is a slovenly super (Guy Boyd) bearing the famed playwright’s moniker, and a ragtag group of tenants: the overly-patriotic Russian coronet player (an endearing William Apps); the resigned, widowed teacher (Sarah Lemp) who suffers from unrequited love for him; her sister, a vixenish redhead who shamelessly pays the rent in the only way she can (Julianne Nicholson); the earnest Italian-American Commie enamored of her (Louis Cancelmi); the smooth-sleazy meatballs salesman who strangely, ominously knows and takes care of each of them (Danny Mastrogiorgio); Marbles, the creepy, nearly-mute clown who entertains with his clever physicality (Nick Lawson); and finally, Rose’s husband (Logan Marshall-Green), desperate to find her, love her, support her (of course, he’s too late with all that).
Rapp directs this, the lightest and most contrived of his three plays (Rose is able to encounter all these colorful characters to such an intimate degree because the super has the convenient penchant of changing the locks on late-paying tenants), as broad, naturalistic comedy. Actors inexplicably stand with the backs solidly to the audience for minutes at a time, exchanges that should be ominous are only mildly disconcerting, and each moment is drawn out unnecessarily, trying the audience’s patience. While the Rappian dark underbelly is present (despite the atypical lack of violence, nudity, or any kind of strong language), as a director, the playwright fails to highlight it, and only the most intuitive of his talented cast — Mastrogiorgio — is able to cast any kind of dark shadow.
Paraffin takes place in the same hallway, only slightly more dilapidated, during the famous 2003 blackout. Directed by Daniel Aukin, this is the Rapp we’ve become accustomed to over the past decade: brooding, discontent, and almost violently ambivalent about society’s ebbs and flows. Darker than Rose, both in tone and design, but nowhere near as foreboding as the evening’s third piece, Rapp’s second play of the evening more sharply focuses on the ties that bind its alternately charming and despicable cast of characters. Preggers Margo and junkie Denny (Nicholson and Apps) are the unhappy husband and wife, and the play opens with Denny passed out on the floor after having, quite literally, shat his his pants (unsurprisingly, Rapp leaves little of the grotesque to our imaginations — the audience is offered a nice, unobstructed view of Denny’s soiled ass). Just down the hall(way), Denny’s brother, Lucas, a caustic, wheelchair-bound vet (a tremendous Jeremy Strong), who is damaged in more ways than one, is spending a sweat-soaked New York summer under the sweet care of one lonely gay man (Boyd). Things get even messier than Denny’s rear end when Lucas offers cash to a married Israeli neighbor (Maria Dizzia) to keep him “company,” a Polish gangster (Lawson) with a keen sense of humor comes to collect his due from Denny, and the Northeastern seaboard goes dark for days during an insufferable heat wave.
Aukin possesses a clear love for his actors — and for the characters they portray. The blackout, in particular, is beautifully intimate. Thanks are largely owed to Tyler Micoleau who, lighting a play set largely in the dark, embraced the shadows and the freedom they offer its painfully isolated occupants, provides a very minimal moonlight trickling through the only window and a handful of candles when necessary to add a warm glow. Only in the dark do the troubled tenants find the courage to express their love, fears, and dreams to each other, and it is in these moments that the characters find peace in the confusing, chaotic world they live in. Until, of course, the crazy Polish gangster bursts in wielding a machete.
The trilogy’s final offering is Rapp at his most Rappian. That is to say: if you appreciate the dark, troubling, downtown nature of Rapp’s work, not only won’t you be surprised by the gross-out apocalyptic world he imagines in Nursing, you’ll be thrilled and even strongly affected by it. (If you’ve never understood the playwright’s appeal, you might want to pass on this one. Or sit near the exit.) In 2053, the apartment building is now a museum in which spectators (ie. the audience) can watch, through a one-way glass wall, a volunteer named Lloyd (an intense Marshall-Green) be injected with the world’s deadliest diseases by an anonymous hospital staff. As he writhes in pain, gurgles incoherently to himself, suffers his boils being lanced, and finally, begins the road to recovery, he is subjected to another and another plague in what can only be described as a horror play hosted by an overly perky museum guide (Sue Jean Kim) who insists Lloyd’s suffering is for our benefit. After all, disease no longer exist in the outside, and children can’t even comprehend what it is to be “sick.” No one feels any pain at all. The point being, of course, that no one can really feel anything — without suffering, how does one truly know what it is to feel joy or pleasure?
Trip Cullman gleefully revels in the horror of the piece: blood, vomit, piss, pus, semen — all are splattered, spurted, and ejected in graphic abundance. But as much as the piece shocks and jolts us, it’s balanced with softer moments such as that between Lloyd and nurse Andy, when the two gingerly seek comfort in each other, sharing an infectious youthful excitement for the poetry of one Dr. Seuss. For all the unrelenting visual brutality, Cullman ensures that an underlying humanity always hovers just beneath the surface.
So why The Hallway Trilogy? As the years pass, the hallway transforms, becoming more dilapidated and unseemly, reflecting the same unwanted changes in the outside world. Rose, not unlike its delicate titular character, reflects a desire, if not success, for an openness and the comforting custom of social mores: one knocks on a door and waits politely for an answer; strangers acknowledge, and even happily engage with one another. Paraffin is a sealant, a protective covering, and in Rapp’s play by that name, doors close more often than they open, apartments are entered without permission, conversation is strained, and violence mounts. People are hardened in 2003, and in 2053, they aren’t simply emotionally segregated, they are literally caged in isolation, with little interaction with others, let alone the outside world. In Nursing, all but one door is sealed shut, and the sole entryway is reserved for a select few.
We are offered an evolution from open and hopeful, to resistant and suspicious, to, finally, brutal and detached. This a nightmare-vision of our future, but one which also includes an aching, acute desire for human connection and empathy. Fragile Rose desperately longs to meet the one person who truly believes in and understands her; Lucas, unspeakably repulsive in his treatment of naively kind Rahel, becomes vulnerable and even tender in a heartbreaking confession to Margo; nurse Joan reintroduces disease into the world, with the full knowledge that as it brings death and suffering, it more vitally brings people together: to feel together, to feel for each other.
Underneath all the dark pessimism and visceral violence lies one great big, beating heart.