Monday, May 2, 2016

TOAST by Richard Bean in Revival at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Steve Nicolson, Simon Greenall, Will Barton, Matthew Kelly, and Matt Sutton in TOAST.  Photo by Oliver King.

It seems to me that there really is much less to Richard Bean’s Toast than first meets the eye.

At first blush, the play, set in a drab, sterile bakery factory in Hull, appears to be something of an existential metaphor for the transience and meaninglessness of human life, inevitably resulting in death and despair (somewhat along the lines, perhaps, of Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit).  Most of the play’s truly outstanding ensemble cast of seven, led by the cadaverous Mathew Kelly as Nellie, are predominately attired in white bakery aprons, (intended, it would seem, to underscore the colorlessness of their lives).  Nellie survives on cheese sandwiches and the short rations of cigarettes allowed him by his wife; others subsist on fish paste sandwiches. Several are sexually frustrated in their very limited lives outside the bakery, devolving into a motley crew of puerile pranksters at work: Cecil (Simon Greenall) has taken to sneaking up behind Peter (Matt Sutton) and grabbing his testicles while Blakey (Steve Nicolson) seems content simply fondling his own.  Colin (Will Barton)  is the group’s singularly ineffectual shop steward while Dezzie (Kieran Knowles) may be the most dysfunctional of all: he arrives late for his shift, can’t recall his new address or phone number, and struggles even to remove his motorcycle helmet.  Indeed, life in the factory may well have been just what Thomas Hobbes had in mind when he coined the phrase “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

When Lance (John Wark), an alleged student of social and economic history, arrives on the scene, our initial expectations appear on the verge of realization.  He is a Mephistophelian character in a bright red shirt that contrasts sharply with the others’ drab whites, a self-described agnostic who ultimately describes himself to Nellie as “having raged unsuccessfully against the dying of the light several years ago,” as one for whom “being dead has made a significant difference in my life,” and as one from “The other side.  From across the metaphorical water….The land of living souls and rotting bodies.  The next world.”

Spoiler Alert!

And yet it is all for naught.  The red shirt is nothing more than a red herring.  When the oven breaks down and several of the men risk life and limb to put it right, some tragedy seems inevitable.  But it’s not.  No one dies; the oven is fixed; the men survive with nary a burn; Lance turns out to be mentally disturbed rather than sinister; and the men return to their cheese and fish paste sandwiches, their cigarettes, their sexual frustrations, and their twelve to sixteen hour days in the factory.  And that’s it.

Toast, Richard Bean’s first play, premiered at the Royal Court in 1999 and recently enjoyed a very successful revival in London and on tour throughout the UK.  And it is only now, after a delay of seventeen years, that it is belatedly being given its US premiere at  59E59 Theaters on East 59thStreet in midtown Manhattan (with its highly acclaimed British cast intact) as part of that theater’s highly regarded Brits Off Broadway program.
For the past several years, we have very much enjoyed the Brits Off Broadway programs staged annually at 59E59 Theaters.  This year, however, we have been mildly disappointed by the first two plays in the 2016 program.  For starters, we found Echoes, the initial play in this year’s program, to be rather wanting, despite outstanding performance by its co-stars, Filipa Braganca and Felicity Houlbrooke..  And now, having attended a performance of Toast, the second show in this year’s Brits Off Broadway program, we find that we’re experiencing a similar reaction: Toast’s seven man ensemble cast is truly outstanding, but as for the play itself, not so much.

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