BOTTOM LINE: Order is truly a black comedy that rides the line between absurdism and realism; energetic performances, well-drawn satirical characters, and a couple of serious gross-outs keep the audience engaged throughout the play.
Order, a new play written by Christopher Stetson Boal (23 Knives, Crazy for the Dog) and directed by venerable New York theatre luminary Austin Pendleton, is now playing in a recently extended off-Broadway run at the Kirk Theatre on Theatre Row. Produced by the Oberon Theatre Ensemble and featuring a high-energy group of actors, Order is an absurdist black comedy that is about as dark as they come.
The play centers around one Thomas Blander, played aptly by Ryan Tramont, a former philosophy professor who was kicked out of the ivory tower and has taken a low-level job as a corporate administrative assistant. Blander, as his name suggests, is excessively mild. His mildness, however, is not just a personality trait, it is a philosophical and moral choice; he believes niceness can save the world. What's underlying his unflappable, boring demeanor? Seething, unfathomable rage, of course. Swirling around Blander are a cast of abusive and decidedly un-mild characters - a punitive wife, an abusive boss, and a frustrated psychiatrist, among others.
It's a pretty fun and dramatic formula. Blander enters and his nonplussed manner immediately drives everyone he encounters up the wall. And Pendleton, who was nominated for a Tony for his direction of The Little Foxes, has deftly directed his capable ensemble to play their characters to the hilt.
Brad Fryman, in particular, stands out as the needy, narcissistic psychiatrist of the protagonist; he is perfectly cast and spot on in his characterization. The audience's hearty laughter during his scenes clearly indicated their enjoyment at seeing a satire of this all too familiar New York City archetype.
Mac Brydon as the abusive boss turned whipping boy also plays his character over the top - in a good way. The audience lapped up his scenes because he went full-tilt boogie with the material and seemed to be having a blast, however there might have been an undertone of discomfort in there too. The character, blatantly homophobic in the first scene, later reveals his secret homoerotic desires, but the whole characterization as written is borderline offensive. There are a couple of other unexamined stereotypes marring the play, a black homeless thug and a cold fish wife, that I think Boal should consider more closely. The play, with an inherently interesting premise, doesn't need to rely on the humor of stereotypes to get laughs.
Eventually, Blander's core of rage demands to be heard; taking on the persona of a "demon" named Bathug who looks and acts like a dude from Westchester, but is actually an insatiable, power-mongering elemental force. When Bathug gets the ear of his host, Blander, Hannibal Lecter-esque shenanigans ensue, until Blander finally ends up captured and institutionalized. The question of whether the demon possession is real or imagined is an intriguing one, but Boal seems more concerned with high-energy hijinx than a close examination of mental and spiritual distress. In the end, the play becomes a somewhat simplistic morality tale - don't suppress your anger or you might not like who you become - but the actors and audience have so much fun along the way that the pat message doesn't end up mattering much anyway.
(Order plays in rep with Shakespeare's Othello, at the Kirk Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, through July 3, 2010. Remaining performances are Friday, June 25th at 8pm, Saturday, June 26th, at 2pm & 8pm, Tuesday June 29th at 7pm, June 30th through July 3rd at 8pm. Tickets are $25.00 and $12.50 for students and seniors. For tickets, visit www.ticketcentral.com or call 212.279.4200. For more information visit www.OberonTheatre.org.)