Friday, February 11, 2011

Review: Adam Rapp's "Rose"


It's a bit difficult to sum up my thoughts about this show, because I feel as though I haven't seen a whole show yet. I saw the first play (Rose) of Adam Rapp's new trilogy, The Hallways Trilogy, playing at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, and I left the evening feeling as though I might not be getting the full experience.

The story of Rose is, as the title of the trilogy suggests, the story of a hallway in a low-rent apartment in the LES. In this case, it takes place in 1953; later installments apparently take place in 2003 and 2053.

The stories in the hallway for this installment are all witnessed by Rose Hathaway (Katherine Waterson), an aspiring actress who has come to see the superintendent, Eugene O'Neill (Guy Boyd), mistaking him for the famous playwright of the same name who has died the previous night. By her passes a Princeton graduate turned communist and CTA worker (Louis Cancelmi), a Russian immigrant who wants to be a black jazz cornet player (William Apps), two sisters living on their own (Sarah Lemp and Julianne Nicholson), and a silent clown who seems to see everything (Nick Lawson).

Although Adam Rapp has a great sense of humor, this installment of the trilogy is incredibly bleak; the only character who seems to get what he wants (and also, oddly, the most sympathetic character) is the affable mafioso who runs the Italian restaurant around the corner, and drops by for some "words" with the Super. For everyone else, this Hallway feels claustrophobic; people are trapped in their rooms, trying desperately to ignore the room with the noose, the sounds of beatings, and the unwanted love that seems to spring up misdirected between many of the characters.

The characters in this world really do cast compelling portraits. The Russian cornet-player, for instance, who is constantly railing against his mordantly obese mother (always heard from offstage) and desperately trying to prove his American loyalties, somehow always manages to charm with his unique phrasing as he tries to navigate his way through English.

I do have to say, though, that at one point, watching yet another compelling story point get unearthed, I started to wonder -- do normal people live in this building? Other than the superintendent, it seemed like everyone in this building had a deep aspiration to contribute to the arts and letters and had frustrated dreams beyond their station.

At one point, for instance, the Princeton communist and the aspiring actor share a moment exchanging transforming theatrical experiences. Maybe in 1953, that sort of conversation was more common, but I started to wonder if we in the arts are lying to ourselves when we put praises of the arts into the mouths of our characters. Thank God for the belly-scratching fat superintendent who frustrates the expected Eugene O'Neill.

It's not an esoteric concern, by the way, this over-compellingness of the lives of these 1953 people. The fact that these people are linked by the hallway is clear; the thematic links of the interconnected stories are, perhaps, less clear. If there was a motto for this world, I imagine it would be something like "The tallest blade of grass is the first to get cut."

Basically, anyone with a dream finds that dream to be the engine of their misfortune; Rose's desire to have Eugene O'Neill's approval, Walsh's love for the sister upstairs and the other sister's love for the Russian, etc. Even the super, O'Neill, finds his small space of greed rewarded by a harsh hand.

At the end of the show, although I'd had a full night of theater, I was left wondering where this is going. As the person who was with me observed, "I wonder if the answer's in one of the other plays?" The play technically stands on its own, but in terms of getting perspective of what the point of it all was, I wasn't sure that I followed. The humor and the humanity can distract you for the length of the play, but when you leave, you realize that it was all bleakness and destruction.

Of course, maybe that is where it's going. Maybe the whole trilogy is nihilism in three different generations. I doubt it.

(Disclaimer: I attended this show with a complimentary ticket. I didn't get that in return for writing this review; I got it for standing next to the bathroom before and after the show, rationing bathroom time to grumpy older folks who questioned the architectural design of a theater with only one bathroom.)