Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Off Broadway: The Hallway Trilogy

We saw Rose, the first of the three plays in Adam Rapp’s The Hallway Trilogy at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre just two days after returning from our Caribbean cruise and enjoyed it so much that we immediately purchased tickets to see the other two plays in the trilogy, Paraffin and Nursing. That was a big mistake. As it turned out, not only was Rose far and away the best play of the three but, even more disturbing, it’s tenor was in no way even remotely similar to that of the other two. Win some, lose some, I guess.

Seeing the three plays has given me a lot to write about, however, so what I intend to do is just comment on the overall production, The Hallway Trilogy, in this post and then review each of its three components, Rose, Paraffin and Nursing, individually over the next few days.

To my mind, a theatrical trilogy is more than just three different plays, shown sequentially in repertory, and called a “trilogy.” Some sort of unifying theme is required. Or, as defines it, a “trilogy” is “a series or group of three plays, novels, operas, etc., that, although individually complete, are closely related in theme, sequence, or the like.” I’ll go along with that.

The relationship among the works in a trilogy may be spatial and character-dependent - as in Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, in which the same six characters are seen from different perspectives on the same weekend in different parts of a house. Or it may be temporal - as in Tom Stoppard’s monumental The Coast of Utopia, in which 44 actors play 70 different roles and the trilogy spans more than three decades in pre-revolutionary Russia (with side excursions to London and Paris). Indeed, a true theatrical trilogy might even be constructed out of three plays that have no temporal or spatial relationship at all - if they share some unifying theme: a playwright might, for instance, construct a trilogy from three plays all dealing with the subject of racial discrimination or marital infidelity or battlefield valor, even though each of the plays in his trilogy was set in a different time and place with different characters - if the subject matter itself provided sufficient unifying force. But there must be something more to a trilogy than just counting to three. Writing three fundamentally unrelated plays, having them performed in repertory, and calling it a “trilogy” just isn’t enough. But, disappointingly, that’s what Rapp seems to have done.

To be sure, Rapp did set all three of his plays in the same tenement building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (in 1953, 2003 and 2053) but that didn’t provide anywhere near the unifying force that a true trilogy requires: if each of the plays had been set in a different building, instead of all in the same one, nothing would have been lost as a result of the transition. And underscoring the lack of unification among the three plays is the fact that none of the characters in any one of them appeared in any of the others; indeed, except for a brief passing allusion to the title character of Rose in Paraffin, there is no evident relationship between the characters in one play and those in another.

It might be argued that there really are at least some unifying themes among the three plays: threats (or worse) of retaliation for debts owed the mob occur in both Rose and Paraffin, physical and/or psychological casualties of the Afghan War play important roles in both Paraffin and Nursing, sexual tensions involving two brothers and the wife of one of them play out in both Paraffin and Nursing, the ambivalent feelings experienced by spouses when confronted by extraordinary behavior on the parts of their partners is touched upon in all three plays, and so on. But I found these reeds to be too slender to support the edifice of a genuine trilogy deserving of the name.

Finally, it might be argued that, in a transcendental or existential sense, the real unifying theme tying the three plays together was something almost cosmic like the redemptive value of all human suffering – whatever that might happen to mean. But does that kind of philosophical babble really have any substantive meaning at all? Maybe to Kierkegaard or Dostoyevsky. Unfortunately, not to me.

The first part of The Hallway Trilogy, Rose, is set in the hallway of a tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1953, on the day following the reported death of the playwright, Eugene O’Neill. This is the most successful of the three plays, employing a clever and original primary plot device, and it is the least dependent upon such theatrical crutches as nudity, sex, scatological humor or violence to retain its audience’s interest. This one is definitely worth seeing.

The second, Paraffin, takes place 50 years later in the same hallway of the same building on the first night of the 2003 New York City blackout. There is one mention in passing of the title character in Rose, and that not even by name. Other than that, it’s difficult to see what the two plays have in common. In terms of sex, nudity, violence and scatological humor, this play has it all – not to its advantage, I’m sorry to say. I wouldn’t take my kids to this one and, if you’re at all squeamish yourself, I’d suggest you skip it too.

The third play, Nursing, is set in 2053 in a disease-free New York, by which time the tenement building has been converted into a museum where individuals in need of cash are injected with old-fashioned diseases to amuse the public. It is, in my opinion, notoriously difficult to write a good science fiction play about some future dystopia – and Rapp doesn’t succeed with this one. He does pull out all the stops when it comes to sex, nudity, violence and scatological humor and I’d not recommend this one either.

A note on the set and on the performances: Construction of the set took quite some doing, requiring a complete realignment of the stage and the seats but it was worth it. Beowulf Boritt can take justifiable pride in the superficially simple, yet actually quite complex, set he designed. And as for the performances, they were first rate across the board. More’s the pity that the second and third parts of the trilogy were so disappointing.

I’ll be posting my review of Rose tomorrow.

No comments:

Post a Comment