Friday, May 30, 2014

REVIEW: Party Play

Copyright Sasha Arutyunova 2014

Some plays are big, on the grand scale of an epic. Other plays are tiny, occupying the infinite and narrow space between two people. Party Play, an original production by Valerie Work and directed by Molly Marinik, is in the latter category -- placing the microscope on a small circle of friends, in a microcosmic world, for a narrow sliver of time. Playing at the Brick through tomorrow, it's a simple story of loss, quiet suffering, and human beings drifting apart.

Now Is The Party Of Our Discontent
As you might expect with a play of such specific focus, the plot is quite simple in scope. Two friends, Paul (Joe Gregori) and Carl (William Barnet) (pictured above), have shared a popular party apartment somewhere in Brooklyn. Now, the party is over in a larger sense -- Carl has run out of money and is going to move in with his parents in Rochester, NY. Paul is staying in Brooklyn, but moving to a small apartment where, sadly, the party will no longer be continuing. Their mutual friend Dustin (Greg Carere) has been handed "the party baton", but there are serious doubts as to whether he can live up to their raucous past.

The play takes place over the night of a single party, the last party, unfolding from end to beginning (Memento-style, if you prefer). The two are going through the motions, welcoming their usual cast of friends -- Kiki (Caitlin Goldie) and Janalyn (Charlotte Arnoux). And, talk of the evening, Tamar (Sarah Poleshuck) is making an appearance, having fallen by the wayside during her marriage... which has just ended in an uncomfortable divorce.

Tiny Tragedy Writ Large
Tamar, Paul, and Carl are each in transition to new homes, both literally (Tamar is also experiencing the stereotypical pains of NY real estate) as well as metaphorically (Janalyn candidly let's slip that when people are away for months it's like they've disappeared for years).

The experience is extremely laser-focused: it's a specific moment in history (it could only be this Millennial moment in Brooklyn, layered over with the pop music and references of our time), in time (unfolding backwards over one night, with the narrative focus almost solely on that night's experience), and in space (the only recognizable outside world referenced is the mythical Rochester, NY). It's told through a theatre-verite, moment to moment the conversations have an effortless unforced realness which, when they are not overburdened with forced meaning, feel like reality.

Unlike your typical, twentieth century "realist" play, this doesn't culminate in explosive monologues -- Tamar never explodes with rage or collapses in tears at the tiny, paper-cut-like slights that her awkward friends send her way, nor does anyone on stage truly speak aloud their fears or pains at any point. We assume that still waters run deep, although in fact all we are seeing are, well, still waters.

At Least We Had Fun
You may be distracted from the stillness of the waters by innovative use of direction, music, and design that keeps the play moving as its story unfolds. Lee Kinney's sound design keeps the flow moving, tying into the on-going party pulse that drives the narrative forward. Molly Marinik's direction finds new ways to use space to keep the play's low-key, realist dialogue from falling into a repetitive lull.

But most of all, Pei-Wen Huang's set design knocks it out of the park -- the set (large moveable stacks of cardboard boxes) provides a flexible, easily transformed use for the space -- rearranging to become the patio, or the dance floor, or the kitchen. It stayed within the realism of the space, while still giving the full theatrical flexibility for Marinik and the performers to work wthin. (And, to my producer's eye, a pretty effective use of budget...)

Distant Party People
This is where I caveat for a moment my relationship to a play called "Party Play" when I'm not someone who particularly likes parties or alcohol. So from where I sat, Party Play seemed like a dispassionate, almost anthropological assessment of the white American party culture in Brooklyn today.

If so, I would say that both the form and the content point towards something severe that's missing in these aimless youth's lives. (Boy howdy I'm about to get all old man up on this review). The big problem for Carl, for Paul, and for Tamar is that they've built a social circle around "having fun." Thus, when some non-fun things happen - Tamar's divorce, for example - the friends at hand can't seem to find any way to provide comfort, or to truly connect with this pain. Instead, it becomes a source of quiet shame. 

The real doubt, hanging over the play, is whether any of the people we're watching are going to be in touch after the party ends. It's difficult to see what they have in common aside from shared memories of wedding parties and after parties, waterslide parties, pool parties. Once the party is gone, what will be left? Certainly, nobody wants to talk about it. And while the party is going, nobody has to.

Tellingly, the two moments when someone addresses the elephant in the room are both Carl, at the beginning and end at the play -- expressions of longing for the past, and fear of the future. A mournful goodbye to a pleasant adolescence.

UPDATE: The original post of this article failed to make the FCC required disclosure: as a reviewer, I was given a complimentary ticket to this production.