a theatre, film & pop culture review
“Everyone must be accounted for,” a hazmat-suit clad young man genially declares as he brands my neck with a black ring-shaped stamp outside of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. My companion, a Rapp virgin, looks at me wearily, as if to say, “Really? This is happening?” as he is similarly tattooed.
Then, like cattle, we are herded up the stairs by more hazmat suits and led to our seats, where we are left to gaze upon Andromache Chalfant’s meticulously rendered ruin of a set: a collapsing ceiling of dangerously exposed wires and crumbling support beams opens up to what can only be a condemned apartment with bombed-out windows, shattered glass, an exposed toilet and bathtub center stage. Stretching out into the audience, this grimy, violated space replete with a contorted, female form lying — lifeless? — downstage left, and coupled with not-so-distant gunfire and explosions, instantly instills a sense of urgency and dread.
Welcome to the wonderfully wonted world of Adam Rapp.
Giddy with the promise of the sensational design (stellar sound by Christian Frederickson) and the possibility of audience immersion, I settle in, anticipating a glorious return to the dark dystopian Rappsian form (after last season’s disappointing Albee-esque departure). The first few scenes beautifully pay off on this initial promise: We learn that the form on the floor is a very-much-alive Ellen (an intensely no-nonsense Hani Furstenberg) who is awaiting the return of her husband who left to fetch some milk 52 days ago. NYC — and most of the country — is now a rubble-strewn war zone, overtaken by a vicious group referred to as “Egg Heads,” because of the ovular shaped headgear they wear, who release deadly diseases into the air. Are they Muslim terrorists? Maybe, but more likely they’re some kind of mercenaries financed by a corporate entity.
Ellen, armed with only a seemingly endless supply of canned peaches — don’t ask how she’s maintained such an epic reserve without leaving her apartment in 52 days — and a cornucopia of narcotics from her previous life as a nurse, collects infants (we kind of find out why later) and grudgingly hosts a multitude of house guests: a menacing intruder (Brian Mendes, playing a mean corpse for nearly the entirety of the play), an escaped Iraqi prisoner (Alok Tewari) who brings news of her husband, and a hard-nosed junkie (Danielle Slavick) who too easily gives up her newborn.
Just as Ellen can never leave her Lower East Side prison-home, we can’t escape either, and must hear about the atrocities happening just outside in an exposition-heavy structure that forces her to interrogate each unwelcome guest twenty-questions style. We never see the world that she fears — that we fear — has deteriorated to depravity. Just a few scenes in, we’re exhausted by tales of men being castrated; women, enumerated; babies, bartered for. And there’s 80 minutes of ambiguity — and constant nudity — to go. As director, Rapp mostly maintains the urgency, but there are scenes that flag — those epic Q&As and overly poetic expository monologues.
The hazmat suits and white-clad, creepily stoic Claire (Joanne Tucker) — the sci fi-esque baby-gatherers that appear in the penultimate scene — as well as the purposeful release of diseases into society are reminiscent of Rapp’s own (far superior) The Hallway Trilogy in which the playwright explores our evolution as a society of hope to one of brutal detachment. But where the trajectory of that trilogy was clear — not to mention horrifying and engaging — here, it’s uncertain what Rapp wants us to walk away with. We’re offered a not-entirely-implausible idea of where we might be in the future, but we’re not implicated — we’re not taken to task for our behaviors, nor are we even really asked to question them. The earlier promise of walking into the Rattlestick — of being accounted for — was not fulfilled. As much as Rapp is known for pushing boundaries, he could surely push harder than this.
As always, Rapp’s great big, beating heart comes out in the final scene. Ellen has exchanged the newborn for the 14 year-old Darius (Vladimir Versailles) who has no idea what’s going on around him. His innocence is staggering, and near him, Ellen visibly and audibly softens. Asking him to take a bath with her, initially creepy, is soon seen as the protective maneuver that it is: the warm water and touching of bodies is comforting, reassuring. With this final tableau, Rapp suggests that what will save us is our inevitable, inherent need to connect with one another. But this bandaid ending simply covers an amorphous problem: what’s really needed is full exposure and active healing.