Runs through 1.31.10
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street
BOTTOM LINE: A smart, provocative comedy for the cynical and hyper-technologized 21st Century.
It's been said that life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel. Judging by his new play Rough Sketch, Shawn Nacol does a lot of both. The play, produced by rUDE mECHANICALS Theater Company, is funny, smart, and provocative. It's also dense, absurd and ultimately sad. Imagine a collaboration between Nora Ephron and Jean-Paul Sartre. Or the literary love child of Preston Sturges and Susan Sontag. Despite - or maybe because of - this basic schizophrenia, I enjoyed the play a lot. Furthermore it has stayed with me. It seeks to create its own new genre by combining and upending old ones. I might be getting too esoteric here, but a complex play deserves a complex response. So…
Let's start with the basics: Dex (Matthew Lawler) and Barbara (Tina Benko) are animators at Doodle Ranch Studios, whose current project is "Coffee Beanies", an animated children's movie about a "quirky, ethnically diverse group of caffeinated compadres who get into hot water trying to escape a Mom-n-Pop coffee shop." Though the two work in the same office they have never spoken until now, which happens to be Christmas Day. Each has taken refuge at the office for his/her own reasons, and each is surprised to encounter the other. We sense immediately that they are a quintessentially odd couple. He is hapless, addicted to junk food and schlumpily appealing; she is gorgeous, driven and has a voice like (as I once heard Annie Lennox described) the world's sexiest computer.
As different as Dex and Barbara are, one thing they seem to share is loneliness. And before we know it they are entwined on the desk. And the floor. And against the vending machine. This is Nacol's first departure from the "meet cute" formula. Rather than take the usual route of building sexual tension, he explodes it in the first few minutes. We're not going to waste time wondering whether these two mismatched loners will get together; oh no, there are much more interesting questions to ponder. Rough Sketch is subtitled a creative conflict. In 2010, sex is merely the prelude.
Collaboration of any kind is a strange concept to both Dex and Barbara. As they warily negotiate their nascent relationship, what gradually emerges are not just two different personalities but two violently opposing world views. Barbara: "The world is cold, meaningless, and constructed of clever nothings." (She also has a line about Walt Disney that literally made me gasp in dismay.) Dex: "The whole world is alive with meaningful possibility and waiting for us to notice." It's not black and white, though. Barbara is, in her stunted way, an idealist. Dex is resigned to being a sell-out and alienated from his only child. Their antagonism becomes a mutual lifeline and despite themselves they are better for each other. I won't give away the ending but it is both shocking and inevitable.
There are other unseen characters in the play, one of which is the Tank, an offstage super-computer that processes animated movies on its refrigerated drives. Like Hal the computer in "2001: A Space Odyssey," the Tank evokes technology that is both empowering and sinister. It's no accident that Barbara, herself something of a machine, introduces the Luddite Dex to the pleasures - and perils - of the Tank. Another important yet absent character is Spence, Dex and Barbara's boss and the holder of all earthly power at Doodle Ranch. He is depicted simultaneously as a genius and a hack, an opportunist and a loyal friend. No one in this play is exactly what they appear to be. (I'd also be willing to bet that Spence's name is a nod to the 1957 Katherine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy classic "Desk Set," a similarly witty battle-of-the-sexes comedy set against a background of encroaching technology.)
Lawler and Benko inhabit their characters seamlessly and complement each other brilliantly. Both are able to integrate Nacol's distinctive verbal humor into believable characterizations, though Benko is more adept with the tongue-twistery language. Ian Morgan's direction is the best kind: tight and clean, yet playful. (Whose idea was Barbara's industial-size hand sanitizer?) The set is effective, though in an ideal world I would like to see this play on a deeper, slightly narrower stage which would allow for more variety in angles, planes and spatial relationships. It would be helpful to have a real clock onstage, despite the technical challenges it presents.
I also think that Rough Sketch would benefit from some judicious cutting and the removal of the intermission. The play already has a sort of farcical urgency, and we should never for a moment be allowed to doubt that the fate of the world depends on a 3-second sequence in a cartoon called "Coffee Beanies." Actually, it may. As Dex observes, "If Homer were alive today he'd be running Pixar."
(Rough Sketch plays for a limited engagement through Sunday, January 31. The performance schedule is Tuesday-Wednesday at 7:30pm, Thursday-Saturday at 8:30pm; and Sunday at 3:30pm. Tickets are $18 and are available by calling Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or online at www.ticketcentral.com. For more information visit www.59E59.org.)