Friday, March 28, 2014

Breathing Time by Beau Willimon

L-R: Lee Dolson and Craig Wesley Divino in BREATHING TIME.  Photo by Jacob J. Goldberg.
Fault Line Theatre is currently presenting the world premiere of Breathing Time by Beau Willimon at the Iati Theater on East 4th Street in downtown Manhattan.  This is an exceptional play, insightful and thought provoking, deeply nuanced, and multi-layered, with sharply-written dialogue reminiscent of David Mamet.  Try not to miss it.

Mike (Lee Dolson) and Jack (Craig Wesley Divino) might seem to be something of an odd couple – at least superficially.  Mike is married, the father of an eight year old boy, and a buttoned-up, by the numbers analyst, specializing in derivatives at an investment bank.  Jack, by contrast, is a single, fast talking, hard drinking, former trader, recently re-assigned to the marketing department of the same bank.  Somewhat surprisingly, they are called upon to share an office and it is there that we begin to discover just how misleading first impressions can be, how little we really understand each other (and often even ourselves), and how presumptuous it can be to jump to conclusions and interfere in others’ lives, even with the best of intentions, based upon one’s own values and attitudes, without knowing all the facts.  In short: “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.”

As it turns out, Mike and Jack might have more in common than first meets the eye.  For one thing, they both were once Boy Scouts.  Not surprisingly, Mike made it all the way to Eagle Scout, while Jack quit after becoming a Life Scout.  Did that presage Jack’s lack of stick-to-it-iveness?  But what, then, is one to make of Jack’s having persisted for years in seeking out the family of a military officer whose West Point ring had come into his father’s possession upon the officer’s death in Vietnam?  And isn’t it odd that tight-assed, quantitative Mike, the former Eagle Scout, can’t recall the Boy Scouts’ rules or oath while erratic Jack, the Boy Scout dropout, can recite them all verbatim?  Nothing, apparently, is quite what it seems.

Indeed, why has Jack really been sent to share Mike’s office?  Is it realistic to think that an unsuccessful trader would be reassigned to the bank’s marketing department and, even if it is, wouldn’t it have made more sense to have relocated him within the marketing department itself?  Is it possible that he is just being parked temporarily in Mike’s office as an interim step before his being forced out of the bank entirely?  Or is it Jack whose career is going downhill?  It is he, after all, who occupied a private office to begin with and who now is being required to share it with a stranger.  Neither Jack nor Mike express any compunctions about what is going on but can we really believe what they have to say?

When we first meet Jack, he is preparing to make a major presentation to a group of the bank’s senior officers, recommending that they offer clients a new derivative product based on the Nielsen ratings.  It is a bold and creative idea and one that could prove to be the most important of his career.  Or rather, he is not prepared but only scheduled to make such a presentation, since his proposal really hasn’t been fully fleshed out (he’s hoping that Mike will help him out on that); he’s still hung over from partying the night before; and even the documents he plans to distribute in support of his proposal haven’t yet been copied and collated.

Breathing Time is presented as a one act play with no intermission and it is in the first scene of that single act – set in Mike and Jack’s office which has been brilliantly designed by Tristan Jeffers - that all of what I have thus far been discussing transpires.  The theatre itself is a modified theatre-in-the-round with parallel rows of seats facing one another on opposite sides of the stage, affording everyone in the audience a view of the entire stage with perfect sight lines.  Mike’s and Jack’s desks have been positioned catty-corner in the corners of the stage as if to emphasize that the two are polar opposites.  Or perhaps it is to suggest that they are both variations on the same theme.  Or that they are two sides of the same coin.  Or maybe all of the above.

L-R:: Molly Thomas, Shannon Marie Sullivan, and John Racioppo in BREATHING TIME.  Photo by Jacob J. Goldberg.  
The second scene takes place in a completely different setting.  Jack’s sister, Denise (Shannon Marie Sullivan) and Mike’s wife, Julie (Molly Thomas) are meeting for the first time over dinner.  Julie is a typical suburban homemaker, as conventional and mainstream as her husband.  Denise is a single mom, providing for her young daughter by performing at a “gentlemen’s club,” while harboring dreams of being a professional dancer.  Stereotypical images, to be sure – except that just as there were facets to Mike and Jack of which we were at first unaware, so too is there more to Denise and Julie than first meets the eye.  We would never have expected, for instance, that it was Denise who visited MOMA whenever she came to New York and that it was she who knew the precise location of every painting in the museum.  And why was Julie so strict with her eight year old son, grounding him for six months simply because she discovered him viewing internet porn?

It was Denise who initiated the dinner meeting, hoping to share with Julie a photograph she had received from Jack that she thought would very much interest her.  And yet, much to her surprise, Julie not only wasn’t interested in the photograph but actually resented Denise’s showing it to her in the first place!  (Her reaction was similar to that of the family to whom Jack attempted to return the West Point ring; they didn’t want any part of the ring and he found himself being rebuffed for what he had considered to be a gratuitously generous gesture on his part.)  From there, the relationship between Denise and Julie only got worse, with Julie attempting to encourage Denise in her dreams, Denise taking umbrage at Julia’s presumptuousness, and neither approving of the other’s child raising methods.

All four of the principal actors - Lee Dolson, Craig Wesley Divino, Shannon Marie Sullivan, and Molly Thomas - are excellent in their respective roles, expressing the multiple facets of their complex  personae with nuanced sensitivity.  They are ably supported Whitney Conkling as Karen, Jack’s tough assistant, and John Racioppo as the waiter serving Denise and Julie.  In sum, a first rate production of a not to be missed play.

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