Below The Belt
Location: Access Theater
BOTTOM LINE: A great piece of writing solidly realized; a production well worth seeing.
A "No Exit" for the Haliburton age, Below the Belt is a great piece of writing by playwright Richard Dresser. The piece is a tour de force filled with rhetorical pyrotechnics that explores the classic theme of the man-made hell. The three-man piece is a great showcase for actors, plumbing the depths of human despair while mining the vaudevillian potential of a relationship triangle in which each member tries to simultaneously destroy and befriend the others, all for no clear reason.
Set in a distant foreign desert on a nondescript yet eerily familiar compound, the three men work in the checking department of the factory, checking each unit of unknown product. Thus our three characters are in but not of the compound; they don't produce, they pronounce judgment on that which is produced, placing them in a limbo even beyond being exiled from family and country, surrounded by barbed wire, and forced to do meaningless repetitive work. The three men are miserable and completely aware of the hell-like conditions in which they exist. They capture a few moments of peace while standing on a bridge, another form of spatial limbo, overlooking a toxic river, at least until the mutant animals growling at the fence find a way in. The irony, of course, is that each man stays in the situation on a completely voluntary basis, hoping that by submitting and working hard they will gain a more prominent place in the company, thus justifying their misery.
The Rock Garden, a fairly new Brooklyn-based company, mounts a very good production of this worthwhile play. Touting a re-visioning and re-imagining of the piece from its original production in 1995, and also noting that the piece has been rehearsed for over a year (the program references the work of the Moscow Art Theater as inspiration), the company accidentally sets the bar very high, maybe a little too high for its own good. This is a solid, naturalistic production of the play, but does not seem like a radical reinterpretation.
The play is well cast and the acting is strong, but neither as nuanced nor as polished as one might expect from a year of work. The truth is, very few American theatre companies have the luxury of working on a piece intensively for an extended period of time. I imagine The Rock Garden, like most typical companies, extended their process in a catch as catch can way, until the final weeks before the production was mounted. So the question is, does this approach, though longer than a typical three or four week process, merit a mention in the program? Probably not.
Additionally, the founder of the company and director of the production, Larry Preston, was also one of the three ensemble members. Clearly, he chose the piece out of a love for the work and a desire to play the character; it was perfect for him and he was a pleasure to watch. However, it is always a risky choice to both perform in and direct a production, and although he did a fine job, I think the piece might have benefited from an objective outside eye. The staging was merely serviceable. That said, the piece worked; the writing carried the day and the actors managed to keep up with it. The set and lighting were also very effective, creating a pseudo-military institutional never-never-land that managed to evoke a sense of timeless purgatory as well as referencing well-known classics like "MASH", "Catch-22" and "The Great Escape".
(Below the Belt
plays at Access Theater, 380 Broadway at White St. in Tribeca, through October 25. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8:00pm and Sunday at 2:00pm. Tickets are $18.00. For tickets or more information, visit smarttix.com
or call 212-868-4444.)