For a middle-aged Midtowner like myself, there is an allure to anything "downtown." There's a different vibe down there, and the theater feels more like art than commerce. It's usually a younger, hipper audience. The downside of that, for me, is that I sometimes feel old in that crotchety, what's-the-matter-with-kids-today way that's never been attractive on anyone. I don't mean "hip" as a pejorative, either, despite the fact that "hipster" connotes someone who is phony, pretentious, and cool at any price. Still the question sometimes occurs to me about downtown theater: is it art, or is it just artsy?
Edgewise is a co-production by two of downtown's many serious and apparently well-funded theatre companies that focus on new plays. The Play Company is "dedicated to new writing with an international view." Page 73 "develops the work of early-career playwrights." Not surprisingly, Edgewise is among the first professional work of playwright Eliza Clark, who is, nevertheless, a writer for the new AMC television series "Rubicon." The Play Company espouses the appealing view that "A play takes you, quickly and deeply, to the heart of human experience." Amen! So does Edgewise fulfill that passionate promise?
The experience of watching this production was ultimately illuminating and moving. While I wasn't always rapt or rapturous during these 90 minutes, I was excited to be witnessing an early professional production (and a first class production it is) of a talented young playwright's work. And while some of Clark's choices rang my crotchety bell, the evening was overall quite worthwhile, and in some ways inspiring.
The setting is a particularly grim and greasy fast food joint called Dougal's. The characters include three high school students who work there: shy Marco (Tobias Segal), self-possessed Emma (Aja Naomi King) and off-the-wall Ruckus (Philip Ettinger). The time seems to be now. The three do what teenagers probably really do in such situations — spar, flirt, tease and insult each other with a seemingly endless string of epithets such as doofus, douche(bag) and moron just to name a few. Not sophisticated, but it's New Jersey. Suburban New Jersey.
Suddenly the banal banter is interrupted by an explosion that literally rocks the roof. A wounded stranger (Alfredo Narciso) crashes through the front door and it becomes clear that this is not just vapid, superficial suburban America. This is vapid, superficial apocalyptic America. A Lord of the Flies survivor mentality is at work, and it isn't pretty.
Amidst the violence there is a lot of talk, much of it startling and some of it tedious. After one speech, Lewis (the stranger, who at 30 is the play's senior citizen) responds "I have no idea what you're getting at." I had to agree with him. And then it dawned on me that the whole play is an exercise in imaginative empathy. For me this show is about something that we spoiled Americans have been spared (mostly) for well over a century, and that many people in the Middle East are experiencing right now: the horrors of war on one's own soil. Ruckus, Marco and Emma are trying to live normal teenage lives. But how can they when "routine" air strikes threaten those lives, not to mention their very sanity? They live in a world where they cannot afford to remain innocent and where no one can be trusted. Clark has brought a very real tragedy to life, and in doing so has indeed taken us to the heart of human experience.
It's hard to imagine a more solid production than this one, directed by wunderkind Trip Cullman. The actors (including Brandon Dirden as the short-lived Paul) are sincere and ardent. The stage violence, of which there is plenty, is very close to convincing. And the design work in all areas is superb. When those air strikes happen, you'll feel like you're in a war zone yourself. We can look forward with eager anticipation to Clark's future work. Meanwhile, I might even start watching "Rubicon." From my wheelchair.
(Edgewise plays in Tribeca at Walkerspace, 46 Walker Street, through December 4, 2010. Performances are Mondays through Fridays at 7:30PM and Saturdays at 2PM and 7:30PM. There is no performance on November 25th. Tickets are $30-$40 and matinees are $12. Student rush is $5. For tickets visit www.theatermania.com or call 212.352.3101.)