By Sawyer Estes; Directed by J.K. Musser
Produced 4th Mirror Productions
Off Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 2.21.15
Stage Left Studio, 214 West 30th Street
by Keith Paul Medelis on 2.9.15
The cast of At Home in Oil. Photo by J.K. Musser.
BOTTOM LINE: At Home in Oil isn’t much of a home to belong in, making an uncomfortably tense and enjoyable hour of theater worth watching.
This provocative collection of one-acts, as they are billed, feels remarkably more well-rounded than what I would normally associate with a series such as this. At Home in Oil, however tragically so, seems to be an autobiographical account of playwright Sawyer Estes’ coming of age in Texas. Through an excitingly well-produced video opening from J.K. Musser (also the director) we learn of some key events in Estes' life ranging from being stung by a wasp, 9/11, and the first sight of a naked woman in Playboy magazine. Additionally, we learn of Estes’ history with his father, presumably some sort of oil tycoon of all-white-suit-stature, that keeps drawing him back to the business he knows is raping and pillaging the earth.
In the first short play, The Dinner Table, a family is helping themselves to bowls of soup and wondering why young baby Sawyer (played by Sean Geoghan) isn’t eating any. The reason: it’s actually just pure black, toxic oil. By the end of this play, he will have a spoonful and seem to convulse in a disgusting fit reminiscent of how our waterways must feel in the event of a catastrophic oil spill. In The Pool, the father (played wonderfully by Bruce Hermann) is taking measurements against a rather sad looking inflatable pool to size it up for potential exploitation. Estes takes on a disturbing and joyous ride through a measuring of the pool involving a strategically placed plum weight that can only be understood as a sexually encounter with both the mother and the earth itself. Lastly, in The Living Room, we’ve progressed to the hospice facility that Estes’ parents now reside in. And now their IV drips are literally pumping them full of the oil that they’ve clung to for so many years, coursing through their veins as it both nourishes and sucks the life from their bodies. I have to imagine this is the sensation of a son, a playwright, who is drawn ever back to the industry of big oil time after time.
There’s something here that feels but intentionally and unintentionally off-putting and a bit confusing. I must say that the casting of Hannah D. Scott as the Mommy/Ma/Mother perhaps lent itself a bit to my confusion. With a much older father character in Bruce Hermann, it was more much more difficult to buy her aging to nursing home status in the latter half of the play. Successful and brave performances were had by both indeed though ultimately left me with some unanswered questions.
There is quite a bit of wonderful writing here though I am curious about Estes’ continued use and discussion of a very similar gag. By the end of each play, I was left ready to move on after some rather on-the-nose turns of phrase. And I’m left wanting to at least understand the motives of his parents that are reduced to such unsympathetic lines as, “I profit from the murder of the world and everything in it.” That said, this is a decidedly well-produced and directed evening of theater on the smallest of dimes in a space, Stage Left Studio, with a boiling hot temperature not much different than its square footage. There was a full crowd on the evening I attended, and with good reason, for attention deserves to be given to a wonderful new voice in the world of playwriting.
(At Home in Oil plays at the Stage Left Studio, 214 West 30th Street, 6th floor, through February 21, 2015. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30PM. The running time is 60 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $15 general and $7 for students and are available at athomeinoil.weebly.com.)