Monday, January 31, 2011

Review of "The Happiness Compartment" at NYCDA Written by Steven Sykes

WARNING: This is not a "formal review"'s informal at best...and long, as I have a lot of thoughts on it....FYI.

This past Saturday night I was asked to attend something they call an "invited dress rehearsal" at the NYCDA. This means the director doesn't feel it is at "performance level" and thus says it's a dress rehearsal. It's meant to lower your expectations so that if there are "glitches" you excuse them.

The name of the show was THE HAPPINESS COMPARTMENT. Because it was a workshop rehearsed on in class there were two casts for the show and thus, two performances that night. I was only able to stay for the first performance but I'll be honest--if I could've stayed to watch the play again, I probably wouldn't have...but not for the reasons you think...the cast really did an amazing job with what they had to work with.

The cast I saw is noted below:
Marion: Elizabeth Stranathan
Reed: Nico Aquino
Claire: Alexandra Nader
Eva: Robbie Skadal
Ruth: Courtney Roberts
Alik: Cesar Salais
Marina: Lauren Steinmeyer

Author: Steven Sykes

Director/Acting Teacher: Richard Omar

I had NO idea what this play was about except what a friend of mine who was in it said...which was what it says on the script I do believe:

"On July 18th, 1969 a car carrying Mary Jo kopechne and senator Ted Kennedy crashed through a bridge into water. Kennedy escaped but kopechne drowned. This is our authors interpretation of what may have been going through her head as she drowned."

Where shall I begin? I could start with how horrible and unfitting and stupid and useless the title is but why's par for the course considering the rest of the writing so...whatever.

So, should we go from bad to worse to good to great? I think that sounds like a here we go!

The play ran about an hour and fifteen minutes I think...which honestly was about 15 minutes too long. But I'll get to why that is later...let's move on to how it all begins, shall we?

It all starts out rather cool. The stage is a rectangular area with audience on both sides. At one end of the rectangle is the entrance and at the other end is a bed with a low radiator behind it and a HUGE window looking out over Manhattan. The music starts and the shade over that window is pulled so that the projections of Marilyn Monroe can be seen as Marion starts us off, talking about accepting a ride home from the party with Senator Kennedy. How he says he'll get her home safe. How he says he's not had to much to drink. We now understand that she represnts Mary Jo.

Then the scene changes to a woman in a bed wearing nothing but a blanket wrapped around her. Marion asks who she is, she tells us that isn't her...that she (Marion) isn't a whore to be in hotel rooms. Uh, if she doesn't know who this can she be thinking of them as she's dying? This leads me into our first catagory...

Let us look again at what this is about. When you read a description like that you think that it will be about Mary Jo Kopechne's life...flashing before her. The concept is actually really interesting, too bad it's not what it sounds like. Instead, the author has decided that the dying thoughts of this woman were about people she didn't know during the Cuban Missle Crisis when American's thought they were going to die...a night where they thought the missles would fall. Is it about what SHE was doing that night? Oh I said, it's about random people they never really explain to you who SHE doesn't even know.

HOW CAN YOU THINK OF PEOPLE YOU DON'T KNOW? AND WHY WOULD YOU THINK OF THE FRIGGIN CUBAN MISSLE CRISIS AS YOU'RE DROWNING? *sigh* It's just not possible but, as I like twisty plots in books and theatre I "assume" the writer is going to find a connection and it will become clear. I shouldn't have given him that much credit. You know what they say "assume" means...

Moving on...

There are three couples and the "conflict" is a Theatre 101 Improve scenerio: "Character A wants to leave while Character B doesn't".

#1. Reed and Claire - Claire is the woman in the bed and we learn she slept with Senator Kennedy that night...thinking the bombs would fall and is suprised to wake up. But when she does, Reed, who works for the Senator is there and he is trying to get her to leave quietly and discreatly as the election is a day away. Reed wants to leave, Claire doesn't. THEIR RESOLUTION? HE LEAVES W/O HER THE NEXT DAY WITH THEM BOTH IN LIMBO ON WHAT'S GOING ON. SO, NO REAL RESOLUTION EXCEPT THEY BOTH SEEM TO UNDERSTAND THEMSELVES BETTER BUT IT DOESN'T HELP THEM COMBAT THEIR DEMONS A LOT. SHE STILL FEELS TRAPPED THERE BY WHAT SHE DID AND HE LEAVES TO DO HIS JOB. ---bummer---

#2. Eva and Ruth - Brother and sister actually...Eva being the brother in a dress because he thinks the recently killed Marilyn Monroe has possessed his body. Ruth stops by to find him hiding under a table (they used to say to hide under your desks to be safe from the bombs. Stupid huh?) and she has come to tell her brother she's unhappy living in LA and is going to move home to NYC. He doesn't deal with this well...him or Marilyn. Ruth wants to leave, Eva doesn't. THEIR RESOLUTION? RUTH FINALLY TELLS EVA SHE'S LEAVING TO THEN WALKS OUT. HE IS LEFT STANDING THERE, GOING A BIT CRAZY (like he wasn't already?) WITH A DRINK IN HIS/HER HAND. ---to be honest...this pairing gets the most closure of the three---

#3. Alik and Marina - From what I was told, these two are to represent Marina & Lee Harvey Oswold (known to use the other name Alek Hidell). We see him meet her in Russia and then we will see them again after their daughter is born and its apparent he's been beating his wife. Marina wants to leave, Alik doesn't. THEIR RESOLUTION? UH...HMM...SHE TELLS HIM SHE'S UNHAPPY WITH HER LIFE AND HE DOESN'T CARE. SO...YEAH, NO RESOLUTION OR ANYTHING LEARNED THAT LEADS A CHARACTER TO CHANGE. ---which is sad because the actress in this section was powerful and her partner was talented but they didn't get a chance to really take the full circle the author should create for them---

The writing goes nowhere---nothing ties together---so as an audience you don't understand the significance of how these characters go together let alone how they connect to the dying woman in the car. This makes it hard to care. The characters are well spoken, diverse, clear cut, but they go on without any resolution in sight. The only reason you give a shit and even stay in your seat is that you have this hope (and as the play goes on that rope gets as thin as dental floss but you cling to it anyways) that the ending moment will make it all clear. I blame this on M. Night Shyamalan's movies. Of course, other than Sixth Sense they all sucked so maybe I'm on the right track with this analagy? The "fault" for something like this falls not just on the author, but on the Artistic Director. The show didn't have the latter...hence the problem. No one was there to look at the writer and say, "What the fuck? Fix that!"

You may ask, what the hell gives you that hope if the characters are long winded and don't tie together and have nothing to do with the girl in car who doesn't even know them? That brings me to our next section...

According to the cast member I know who sent me the names of the cast and blurb on the show concept, the director says he didn't consider himself the "director" so much as an acting teacher helping shape the project. Well, it was his directing that gave us hope. That hope came in two aspects.

The first was in the blocking. It was absolutely fantastic both for the design of the space and for the feel of the piece. And I'm picky on blocking since I'm a director and choreographer. So for me to totally love blocking means it was pretty flawless. (NOTE: For those who don't know,"blocking" is the planned movement a director assigns to dialogue.) Their movements were supported and warrented 98% of the time and you never felt you couldn't see what was going on---the actors spliting their movements well enough tha both sides of the audience got their fair share of seeing what was going on. THAT is tough to do so props to the non-director! And, speaking of props, he used them well to support that movement...justifying it when it wasn't character based.

The second was the awkward scene changes. Yes, awkward on purpose...they totally supported the feel of the underlying concept of a woman dying. You see, between each scene/segment was this funky music where the characters would do this creepy yet cool modern dance stuff where they jerked about. It made me think of Mary Jo's fractured mind or how she might have clawed to get out of the car while that asshole of a senator left her to die while he swam to shore. Put that with the other wonderful movement/blocking and you have why we thought it would all smoothly show itself at the end.

But that's not the main reason I had faith in the piece. This brings me to my last part...

These actors and actresses were absolutely phenominal. With a commitment to the text and concept that sold you on the show. Period. Most of the cast are in their late teens to early twenties, as college kids tend to be, but they had the power behind them, most of the time, of adults who've had ten more years of experience behind them. To commit to a horrible script like this that give you, as an actor, no real journey is crazy difficult. Luckily they had each other. A great scene partner is key. And I do mean "scene partner"...not "show partner". These were scenes from one play set in someone else's play---as if the narrator was from one show and the scenes belonged to another w/o any connection AT ALL, and yet, these kids rocked it out.

I specifially want to point out three people: Lauren Steinmeyer, Cesar Salais, and Robert Skadal. Lauren plays the Russian gal. The character starts out speaking fluent Russian and then once she speaks English its with a pefect Russian accent. As a girl from Missouri, this isn't a simple task. The character is also complex in the idea that she loves her husband while at the same time hating him. Another "not so easy" thing to portray---but it was beautifully done. I mention Cesar for many of the same reasons...the speaking of Russian and the ability to play an abusive husband. But I think his biggest nod comes from watching Lauren. He had to manhandle her a bit, throw her about, and so on. It was evident by how she threw herself into it (no pun intended) that she trusted him, and THAT alone speaks volumes for him. And my third nod goes to Robbie Skadal who was the Eva, the person who feels they are inhabited by the dead soul of Marilyn Monroe...and going crazy. Roles like this are fun and difficult because you have to find that happy medium where you're normal with a touch of crazy most of the time and yet slip into normal and then into super crazy only in spurts. Keeping a character like that from being one dimentional (aka just being a loony tunes)...much like when you are supposed to play drunk and you have to not "overdue"...and this takes control and talent, which Mr. Skadal has in droves. That, and he wore that white long flowing nightgown with class. He even shaved his legs folks! Now there's a commitment!

But the rest of the team on stage were strong as well. I actually am intersted in Courtney and Alex for possibly spots in the photo-shoot for LDG so that's something awesome that came out of my trip to this show. :)

So, like I said in my previous post..."The acting was great, the writing was okay but lacking in direction and connection, the directing was well done and the artistic direction sucked balls." Would I see it again since their going to do this again possibly at the end of the year? No. Not unless the problems I noted are fixed. But...I want to tell the cast and director that they did an amazing job with what they had to work with. I've both performed and directed shows where the script made you want to dig your eyeballs out with a spoon and it's hard to commit to it like they did. It was their acting alone that made me care and the directors work that gave me faith he'd find a way to connect it all...too bad their work was in vain. This script just doesn't work. It doesn't impact the audience at all. We wonder why we bothered to sit through the show...and then we hear in our heads, "Cause the acting was superb". So kudos to the cast for doing their job...too bad the author didn't do theirs.

One last note: At one point Marina is up on the edge of the window and I thought, "Oh, their going to have her go to the bridge to jump off and THAT's how it will connect cause she'll be at the same bridge that Mary Jo and the senator went off of and she'll be the witness or something!" But no.

No connection. No interest. No emotional affect. No journey taken. No resolutions. No lessons learned. No point made.

Thank God the actors saved that night of theatre!

Tamsin Silver

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