Thursday, February 24, 2011

Off Broadway: Rose (Part 1 of The Hallway Trilogy)

Rose, the first part of The Hallway Trilogy by Adam Rapp, now playing at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, is set in 1953 in a rundown New York City tenement hallway where we meet the assorted denizens of the building as well as a couple of other somewhat questionable neighborhood characters. The tale revolves primarily around the title character (Katherine Waterston), a fading ingĂ©nue who almost snared the starring role in a Eugene O’Neill play. Failing to get the role she so desired may have tipped her over the edge and, by the time we meet her, on the day following O’Neill’s apparent death, she has embarked on an odd quest to find him, convinced that he is still alive and hiding out as part of some vague conspiracy, despite the fact that the newspapers reported his demise the night before.

It is that quest which has brought her to a building whose superintendant bears the playwright’s name, a man who may (or may not) be the playwright himself (assuming, of course, that the playwright is not, in fact, already dead). This, of course, is one of the play’s several conceits suggestive, in a way, of the influence of Tom Stoppard: in Stoppard’s Jumpers, one of the principal characters was a philosophy professor named G. E. Moore but, as it turned out, not the famous Cambridge philosopher G. E. Moore, but just another second rate professor who bore the same name. Here it appears likely that the building superintendant, Eugene O’Neill (Guy Boyd), a sleazy, sloppy individual of highly questionable integrity, is no more the playwright than the Stoppard character was the famous philosopher.

The play is rife with other plots and sub-plots and a whole menagerie of characters, all immensely entertaining. One apartment in the building is shared by Mary (Julianne Nicholson), a young promiscuous socialite, agreeable to providing superintendant O’Neill with sexual favors in exchange for the rent, and her sister Megan (Sarah Lemp), a much more proper English teacher. Another apartment is occupied by Orest (William Apps) a Russian immigrant and his enormously obese mother. Jerry (Louis Cancelmi), a Princeton graduate, resides two doors down from Orest, providing the audience with a striking allusion to yet another of Stoppard’s plays, Hapgood.

Hapgood is a very intricately constructed play in which spies, secret agents and double agents appear, disappear, and re-appear in different places, all of it intended to serve as a metaphor for the paradoxes of quantum physics in which things are not necessarily what they seem, in which two things might be in the same place at the same time, and in which something might travel from Point A to Point B without traversing any of the space between the two. In Hapgood, one can never be sure who is on which side nor how an agent might enter one changing room and emerge from another.

Well, as it turns out in Rose, (set, remember, in 1953, at the height of the McCarthy witch hunts), Orest, the Russian, is an enthusiastic advocate for the “American way of life” while Jerry, the Princeton graduate, is an active member of a Communist cell. Or are they really what they seem? And what, if anything, does it mean when Orest emerges from Jerry’s locked apartment without ever having been seen to enter it?

Meanwhile, Marbles (Nick Lawson), a somewhat mysterious busker-clown (who might well have served as an opening act for “The Jumpers,” the acrobatic troupe in the Stoppard play of the same name), somersaults his way onstage, appears, disappears, reappears, loses his marbles, vaults railings, vanishes through an open window and down a fire escape, and generally infuses the play with yet one more level of sinister and antic uncertainty. And when Louis Zap (Danny Mastrogiorgio), a dapper Mafiosi arrives on the scene, the plot thickens further. It is evident that he has some financial interest in the building, some relationship to the building superintendent, and some relationship to Marbles as well. But how does it all fit together?

This first (and best) play in the trilogy concludes with the arrival of Richard B (Logan Marshall-Green) who, in searching for Rose, provides a logically consistent, albeit highly implausible, explanation of the events we have witnessed. It worked for me and the net result, I must say, is that it left me thoroughly satisfied with the play I’d just seen.

In sum, Rose is intricately, creatively and intelligently structured and extremely well written. Rapp may take justifiable pride in having written it – as well as having directed it (it is, incidentally, the only one of the three plays that constitute The Hallway Trilogy that he chose to direct himself). The set appears to be very simple (although it actually took some doing to construct) and, although it is just one long hallway bounded by the door leading into the superintendant’s apartment at one end and a window leading to a fire escape at the other (with the doors to three other apartments and a stairway leading to the other floors in the building in between), it is effective and works well. Every member of the cast turns in a first rate performance, most noteworthy among them being Katherine Waterston as Rose, whose acting talent and emotive expression extend across an extraordinary range; Julianne Nicholson as Mary, who captures the essence of her character as a 1950s socialite floozie; and Guy Boyd (as O’Neill), William Apps (as Orest) and Nick Lawson (as Marbles) all of whom contribute major whimsical comedic touches to the production.

I’ll post my review of Paraffin, the second play in the trilogy, tomorrow.

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