CONTACT HIGH

Gabriella Marzetta, Kyle Reid Hass (1)

Book, music & lyrics by Kyle Reid Hass & Jeremy Swanton
Directed by Kyle Reid Hass

Nothing comes easily for the students at Fairview High School. In today’s failure-phobic climate, senior year is an acid test, a chance to take hold of the future before it takes puts a choke hold on you. Benjamin (Jeremy Swanton), has a good enough grade point average to get into his dream college, but the only way he can afford ivy league tuition is by peddling heroin to his fellow students. His partner in crime Jean Simon (Gabriella Marzetta), has a less lofty goal in mind. She wants to take back the $10,000 adult gangster Trix (Dana Norris) has shorted her and Benjamin during one of their transactions. Adding to the atmosphere of anxiety is the mysterious disappearance of Fairview student Tommy Wheeler. No one seems to know what happened to him (or if they do, they’re not talking), and only Tommy’s best friend Karen (Laura Thoresen) makes much effort to get to the bottom of it.

Karen and Benjamin belong to the Science Alliance, an elite club in which brainy students prepare to showcase their game-changing inventions at a big statewide competition. The most brilliant of the scientific hopefuls is Hayley Walter Keys (Kyle Reid Hass). But the Science Alliance has voted to boot him out of the club for his flaky behavior. Too bad he’s already spent thousands of dollars on illegal parts for his project, and now owes money to a shadowy weapons dealer named The Warlock. Desperate for cash, he pleads with Jean to put in a good word with her boss, gun-toting drug lord  Landon Casey.  As Jean soon learns, Haley’s scientific mind makes him an ideal co-conspirator.  As they cook up a plot to reclaim  Trix’s closely guarded loot, Jean and Haley discover they have more in common than meets the eye. He suffers from haphephobia, a rare disorder which causes him to react violently when another person, even accidentally, physically touches him. This condition has made him a pariah at school and a convenient suspect in the Wheeler case. Jean suffers from a more common affliction: she has become addicted to the heroin she slings. Although the two may not seem like natural allies, their shared struggle with inner demons (contact for him, high for her), puts them on the path to friendship. While their bond deepens, Benjamin becomes more embroiled in Landon’s criminal syndicate. Back on campus, the impending science fair brings out the best and worst in the clubbers, while grief counselor Brandi Orphan (Norris) sets up shop, ostensibly in an effort to help the kids cope with Tommy’s disappearance but more likely hoping to advance a hidden agenda. All these tensions inevitably erupt with tragic consequences, although there  does appear to be hope at the bottom of this Pandora’s Box of 21st Century problems. The kids, those left standing, learn that sometimes being good is a worthier goal than trying to be perfect.

Sympathetic characters and a solid structure keep the show moving briskly. In the  second act especially,  the writers neatly wring comedy relief from Brandi’s hollow shrinkspeak and from the antics of the overzealous science kids (especially the underutilized Iyana Colby).  But there are missed opportunities here as well. The story  suffers a bit from Breakfast Club Syndrome, in which grownups, seen only through a teenoscope, appear to be either uncool clods or one-dimensional antagonists. The score, too, could stand to take more risks. To be sure, Swanton and Hass  know their craft. The lyrics elucidate the characters’ wants and the rhymes are clean (a rare pleasure in a time when HAMILTON’s dollar-father, hungry-country  near rhymes are considered the gold standard). Nevertheless, too many of the songs focus on adolescent self-seriousness, and  most are built around familiar pop-hymnal chord sequences. Rarely do the numbers soar to memorable melodic heights or descend to the down-and-dirty depths of rock and roll. With all the influences at play in contemporary popular music, one would think the youth of today would move to a more varied and vivid soundtrack. 

All in all, CONTACT HIGH adds up to a sincere effort by a promising young creative team—not quite the emotional journey or generational anthem contained in the seeds of its premise. Like their protagonists, though, Swanton and Hass, if they persevere, will get where they need to go .

CONTACT HIGH continues through September 7, 2019 at Theater 511, located at 511 West 54th Street, New York, New York. Tickets: https://ci.ovationtix.com/35107/
production/1014717

 

 

 

 

 

SUMMER SHORTS 2019, SERIES B

4brfuYf3

Written by Sharr White, Nancy Bleemer & Neil LaBute
Directed by JJ Kandel, Ivey Lowe & Duane Boutté

Set design by Rebecca Lord-Surratt
Lighting design by Greg MacPherson
Costume design by Amy Sutton
Sound design by Nick Moore
Projection design by Joshua Langman
Prop design by Jenna Snyder and Alexander Wylie

Everyone knows the official story of the “greatest generation”, the hard-working and self- sacrificing Americans who toughed out the Great Depression, bravely fought and won the Second World War, then settled into comfortable lives in the new prosperity. But a closer look reveals cracks in the façade of postwar contentment. Sharr White’s ironically titled LUCKY looks at lives that didn’t fit into the socially convenient narratives of the day. With a storm raging outside, veteran Phil Granger (Blake DeLong) holes up in a dingy motel room on the outskirts of his home town. Unexpectedly, Phil receives a visit from his wife Meredith (Christine Spang), who is interested to know why he keeps disappearing and if he ever plans to return home for good. Phil is evasive, unable to put his feelings into words. Meredith presses further, elaborating on the sorrows of Phil’s mother, the death of his disgraced father (apparently a suspected communist), of her own difficulty at transitioning from the role of a machinist during the war to a shop girl in peace time, and of how Phil’s prolonged absence has made her the butt of small town gossip. Phil has the power to change all this, but he suffers from what we now know as PTSD. Nursing his invisible wounds, he has chosen the life of a drifter rather than return to the wife of whom he now feels unworthy and the civilian life he no longer knows how to lead. There’s nothing in any of the government- issued training manuals about fixing a broken man, but with a little determination Phil and Meredith just might find a way forward. Spang and DeLong give honest and moving performances, but they’re underserved by the oddly stagnant script. Meredith spends a good deal of time unpacking information, but doesn’t vary her tactics much, which make her effort to win her husband back seem half-hearted. And by the time Phil gets around to admitting that he “cracked up” from battle fatigue, the audience has long since figured this out has wearied of waiting for the other shoe to drop. White would do well to shake things up by exploring the idioms of regional speech or examining how people in pain use humor as a coping mechanism: something to vary the tone.

In PROVIDENCE, Michael (Jake Robinson) returns home to Rhode Island for his sister Gina’s wedding. Though he’d like to get some rest before the big day, his wife Renee (Blair Lewin) requires his help. She is in need of a tampon: a tricky problem to solve when all the other family are asleep and none of the stores are open. With slumber a slender possibility, the two get to talking, and details emerge about Michael’s family. Renee feels like something of a secular-Jewish Alice in a Catholic wonderland of eccentric relatives, sauces with mysterious ingredients, and crucifixes adorned with human hair. The conversation is disrupted by a visit from groom-to-be Pauly (Nathan Wallace), who is also suffering from insomnia. Nervous about embarking on the biggest journey of his life, Pauly seeks advice from his more experienced soon-to-be relatives. What’s this marriage thing really all about anyway? How do couples communicate, sustain a healthy relationship, make love last?  Touched by Pauly’s sincerity, Michael and Renee begin by trying to help, but end by wondering if Pauly and Gina, sweethearts since fourth grade, could teach them a thing or two about coupledom. Several years into their marriage, Renee and Michael have thankfully outgrown their newlywed insecurities, but along the way they’ve inevitably lost some of the wonder – the Pauly-ness, you might say – that once made life seem so romantic. Playwright Nancy Bleemer wisely doesn’t spoon feed the audience an easy answer as to whether the passage of time will strengthen or erode the young couple’s bond, preferring instead to let us continue thinking about her vibrant characters long after the curtain goes down. Crisply timed direction and an emotionally honest cast help deliver Bleemer’s affecting blend of comedy and poignancy.

A different kind of relationship angst animates Neil LaBute’s APPOMATTOX. This time it’s a friendship that is put to the test. Buddies Frank (Ro Boddie) and Joe (Jack Mikesell) are out in a pleasant local park, planning to chat, throw a football around, and munch on some (scrupulously healthy) picnic food. But their idyll takes an uncomfortable turn when Joe brings up the recent (factual) news story in which a group of Georgetown students voted to increase their tuition in order to create a scholarship fund for descendants of the slaves that were once owned, and sold, by the University. Joe finds the young people’s action commendable, but Frank has his doubts. After all, the increase in tuition is only $27.20 per student per semester: symbolic, yes, (272 is the number of people sold by Georgetown in 1838), but is that amount really enough? If this is really about payback, shouldn’t it hurt a little? Perhaps it’s better to consign what he calls the “un-make-up-able” things to history and just move one with our lives. With increasingly absurd results, Joe keeps frantically trying to brainstorm reparations ideas that will please his black friend. Frank wishes his oafishly well-meaning white pal would just change the subject, but Joe refuses to let it go. Well then, reasons Frank, if that’s the way it is, game on. He, too, escalates, and soon both men find themselves speeding down that famous paved-with-good-intentions road to hell with little hope of turning back. The script raises important, often unanswerable questions. What exactly is the correct price for a human life, let alone a compensation package for thousands of lives destroyed of a period of 400 years? Should we, as Frank would prefer, put the past behind us, or is it better, as Joe believes, to at least do something to push the conversation in the right direction? LaBute’s point here isn’t to hold a Shavian debate on the pros and cons of slave reparations, but to show America’s dark past, bewildering present and foreboding future can toxify even the most positive of relationships. Smartly, Mikesell and Boddie portray Joe and Frank not as ideologues, but as engaging guys who genuinely like each other and strive for nothing loftier than a little casual bro time. Their rapport makes the story’s painful trajectory all the more resonant.

SUMMER SHORTS 2019, SERIES B continues through August 31 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022. Tickets: https://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/summer-shorts-2019-series-b/

A WHITE MAN’S GUIDE TO RIKER’S ISLAND

1250-33bcb8dc67089cf1bbbc5d8c6d95c2a2

Written by Richard Roy & Eric C. Webb
Directed by Thomas G. Waites

Using only a bare stage and a single actor, Richard Roy’s colorful prison dramedy sports a suspenseful plot and a cast of inmates as compelling as those found in Oz and Orange is the New Black. And it clocks in at under two hours, no time-devouring binge watching required.

Derived from an incident in Roy’s real life, A WHITE MAN’S GUIDE TO RIKERS ISLAND is narrated in energetic first person by Young Rich (Connor Chase Stewart). Growing up in suburban New Jersey, the young man exhibits prodigious talent on the basketball court and the boxing ring, even sparring with Muhammad Ali and contending for the prestigious Golden Gloves. In his early twenties, he trades in his mitts for a new ambition: acting. Here, too, he is successful, scoring parts in Broadway plays and soap operas. His love life is great, too, and he plans to marry his girlfriend as soon as possible. But Rich has a destructive penchant for booze and cocaine, and on one of his wilder benders he loses control of his vehicle and plows into a motorcycle. Sobering up amid a tangle of blood and twisted metal, Rich is arrested and told that the rider of the bike did not survive the crash. His bright future derailed, Rich obtains the services of a good lawyer, but eventually finds his only hope is to cop a plea and prepare himself for a stint in one of America’s most notorious penal colonies.

Now a “fish” (prison jargon for a first-time convict) out of water, Rich finds himself surrounded by a population of mostly black and Hispanic internees from poor or working-class backgrounds. He stands out like a sore thumb, but is thankfully able to find a few allies. Streetwise Saddam shows Rich the ropes, while the charming transgender Shivon develops a crush on the new inmate and keeps a lookout for potential threats. Together with his new associates, Rich quickly masters the art of “juggling”, a form of loansharking in which cigarettes are used as currency. With more economic resources at his disposal than the average prisoner, Rich is able to buy smokes in bulk at the commissary and undercut the price set by rival jugglers. But as his reputation grows, so does his visibility as a target for retaliation. The dominant gang at Rikers is the Latino Express, and its leader, Hector, doesn’t take kindly to the white interloper cutting into his market share. Confrontations follow, and when Hector starts asking questions about Rich, it turns out their histories are intertwined in ways that neither could have predicted. Like characters in a Greek drama, Hector and Rich seem fated to cross paths. After a few close scrapes, Rich becomes more vigilant. He spends most of his time in the relative safety of the offices of the Rikers Review, presided over by the idealistic corrections officer Dillis. The tedium of prison life begins to lift as Rich puts his energy and sense of humor into writing for the paper. But it’s only a matter of time before stark changes take place both inside and outside the walls of Rikers. Reckoning, remorse, catharsis, and redemption beckon. Rich might just come out of this a better man– if he can stay sane.

Tightly constructed and disarmingly tender at times, Roy’s script, co-written with Eric C. Webb, manages to cover a copious amount of narrative ground while never bogging down in extraneous detail.  Under Thomas G. Waites’s allegro direction, Stewart rises with creativity and conviction physical and emotional demands of the role. His odyssey is given extra weight by brief appearances, at the prologue and coda to the show, of the real Richard Roy. Weathered but hopeful, Roy seems determined to live a life of purpose, to give his experience meaning by using it to help and inform others. With the controversial Rikers Island yet again in the news today (see below) his voice can only increase in relevance.

https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/31/us/layleen-polanco-rikers-island-autopsy/index.html

A WHITE MAN’S GUIDE TO RIKERS ISLAND continues through August 31, 2019 at the Producer’s Club 358 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: http://www.brown-papertickets.com/event/4273937