The Pool Plays: 1. The Ding Dongs. 2. Is Edward Snowden Single? 3. Superstitions

 These are three plays presented in repertory at the New Ohio Theater through November 20th by The Pool, which is described as a “pop up theater company” with a “sustainable model of artist-led theater production.” In other words, the playwrights are the producers, and the money from ticket sales goes to the artists. With the run of these plays complete, they will pass on The Pool to a new set of playwright-producers.

I welcome the concept. I would support just about anything that gets people back into the theater to see challenging  plays.  All three offer some confusion and some pleasure and feel like what theater in New York is supposed to be like

The Ding Dongs

In this play written by Brenda Withers and directed by Daisy Walker, a cheerful couple rings the bell of a suburban home. Joe (Jonathan Fielding) grew up in the house, as he and his wife Natalie (Withers) explain to  the man who opens the door, Rodelmo (Robert Kropf.) “I have to just come right out and ask: can we come in?” Joe asks. Rodelmo says “sure,” but he doesn’t stop blocking the doorway,  and he comes up with any number of vague excuses why this is not a good time to visit. He has a hangdog look, acts as if he might be hungover, and seems cagey. 

The couple politely persists, although Joe often digresses, shooting the breeze, telling homey anecdotes. He explains he was a runner in school, but now he just jogs. “You have to just accept that you wasted your time, all that time getting really good and comfortable with something that’s gone now, and the next step is moving on and getting really good and comfortable with something else, that will be gone later. Things change. “

“I hate change,” Natalie interjects, “but I hate more all those people who always say, “things change…. the people who really try to sell you on this idea, that change is inevitable? What’s that all about? “

“But it is inevitable,” Redelmo says.

This infuriates Natalie, but she tries to keep calm. “I don’t want to have a fight on the street with a stranger..”.

“It’s not good to bottle things up,” Joe says to her.

“Well, that’s another ridiculous thing to say. Of course it is. Why else are bottles so popular? They’re everywhere. They’re a major part of several industries. I bet Redelmo’s got bottles in his house, all over the place. Right? 

“Right,” Redelmo says.

“And they’re useful? They’re good?”

“They’re useful.”

The dialogue, light and amusing, takes  a dark turn, once the couple has maneuvered their way into the house.  The doorbell rings while the three are inside, Redelmo goes to the door – and it’s a box, addressed to Joe and Natalie. With Redelmo’s address. And, soon, the box moves…by itself. We have shifted into nightmare territory, a suggestion of both the supernatural and the dystopian – the sort of changes that anybody would hate, not just Natalie. These changes were hinted at, albeit abstrusely, by the original subtitle of the play, which has been presented in productions going back to 2011, but omitted from the program in this one: “or What is the Penalty in Portugal? A meditation on homeland security.”

The shift in our perception of the characters is artful; the twist to a larger breakdown of civilization is less so.  Certain details feel insufficiently thought through.  (Like: What about calling the police? There’s a stab at an excuse that didn’t make sense to me. How about instead some suggestion that the police no longer function, what with the breakdown and all?) Perhaps the playwright is operating under the belief that the more vague the details — the more questions left unanswered — the more ominous the effect.  That is surely true up to a point, but “The Ding Dongs” went past that point for me.

All three of the actors give good performances in difficult roles.  It was a special thrill to see Withers in her own play. I first saw her on stage at the New York International Fringe Festival portraying Matt Damon to Mindy Kaling’s Ben Afleck in the hilarious comedy they wrote together,  ”Matt and Ben,” which had its own supernatural twist: “Good Will Hunting,” too good a screenplay for novice young actors, was actually created by an alien from Outer Space. 

Is Edward Snowden Single?

 In this play written by Kate Cortesi and directed by Kate Bergstrom, Elise Kibler and Rebecca S’manga Frank portray Mimi and April, two actresses who have been best friends since college, who like to play-act together. That, anyway, is subtly suggested meta-theatrically midway through the play as the reason why we spend nearly two hours (without intermission) watching Kibler and Frank (or Mimi and April) portray 19 characters that figure in a story that has nothing to do with Edward Snowden, except perhaps thematically. Actually, Snowden is a character too, albeit meant to be understood only as a figment of Mimi’s fantasies, admiring her for her beauty and her integrity. He is portrayed by a third actor, Brian Miskell…and more often by a teddy bear puppet that Miskell manipulates.

The event that’s at the center of this play – what one character calls “literally the crux of the whole thing” – involves Mimi and Gavin, who work together at a coffee shop owned by Gavin’s uncle, Lucien. Gavin is a lazy co-worker, but hot, and Mimi often covers for him.  One time at the end of the day, Mimi sees Gavin skimming money from Lucien’s cash register. And she’s faced with a dilemma: Should she tell on this good friend? She’s also good friends with the whole family – Lucien, Lucien’s stepmother Anita, Lucien’s eight-year-old daughter Rosa, whom Mimi often babysits….all vividly sketched characters ably portrayed by either Kibler or Frank and sometimes both.

It gets sticky to continue with this synopsis, because….things are not necessarily the way they appear. 

Cortesi is extremely clever in her playfulness, and her shift from the merely playful, and how she ultimately doesn’t just shift the audience’s perceptions; she demolishes them.  I have a couple of quibbles, though, and one large reservation.

Invoking Edward Snowden so thoroughly in Mimi’s dilemma could suggest the way individuals take inspiration from well-publicized public acts of conscience, or it could be suggesting how self-centered Mimi is to compare her dilemma to such an international controversy, or it could just be trivializing Snowden’s (and indeed all acts of) whistleblowing, making it indistinguishable from tattling. 

I have seen a number of plays lately in which actors play multiple roles – The Lehman Trilogy, Lackawanna Blues (a solo show), Twilight Los Angeles 1992 (once a solo show; now five actors play about 40 characters), Morning Sun. I understand some of the various reasons for doing this: It’s cost-effective, it shows off the actors’ versatility, it may be making a larger point about how much all of humanity has in common and, in Cortesi’s play, it helps in her trickster aim of shifting our perceptions of the individual characters.  But it has to be done exceptionally well, both in conception and execution, for the practice to avoid putting an undue burden on the audience (or, at least, on this audience member.)

The overload of roleplaying in “Is Edward Snowden Single?” is not the only undue burden the play puts on its audience. It’s as if the playwright hasn’t decided what she wants this play to be: the story of a complicated friendship, an acting exercise, a pointed morality tale, an exploration of whistleblowing, the anatomy of a lie, a look at betrayal, a feminist cautionary tale and parable, an investigation of black-white relations and white privilege (April, and Lucien – and Frank – are Black; it’s unclear what race Gavin is supposed to be, although he’s portrayed by Frank. Mimi is white) So the playwright throws it all at you, hoping you’ll sort it out yourself. That so much is going on is a sign of the playwright’s expansive intelligence, to be sure, but how intelligent is a play ultimately if it leaves the audience overwhelmed or confused?

Superstitions

This play by Emily Zemba, directed by Jenna Worsham,  introduces us in the first scene to some common if strange American superstitions, when David Greenspan, portraying Grieg, a man from somewhere else – who with jerky movements and a weirdly squeaky voice seems more like an extraterrestrial than simply a foreigner  – picks up a penny from the ground. He hands it to  Nereida (Latanya Edwards), who happens to be sitting on a nearby bench, in an apparent zombie trance. But Nereida stirs awake, and engages this stranger in conversation about standard American superstitions – good luck comes from finding a penny heads up, bad luck comes from breaking a mirror, spilling salt on the table, having a black cat crossing your path, walking underneath a ladder; and then there’s Krampus, a kind of scary alter-ego of St. Nicholas, who beats misbehaving children. Nereida asks Grieg about the superstitions in his (unnamed) country. Grieg answers that he was abducted by aliens, which is a superstition, because “some believe me, others not.”

What follows is a dizzying series of vignettes, performed by an eight-member cast, that initially seem completely unrelated  — a couple Jane and Michael (Celeste Arias and Naren Weiss) sit at a table waiting anxiously for somebody; two strangers Henry and Sildat (Nicholas Gorham and Ricardo Vázquez) watch a movie in the middle of the afternoon; an older woman (Iliana Guibert) brings a child (Rebecca Jimenez) on a visit to the city, and breaks the news that she’s leaving the child’s mother. It’s hard to understand what these have in common. Maybe each is connected to a superstition? Jane does pour salt on the table.  The Krampus even makes an appearance (in a tone fitting the tradition of absurdist comedy rather than Grand-Guignol.)

But the characters start intruding into each other’s stories – or, more precisely, we learn the connections among the various characters – and some of it starts to make sense. We learn, for example, that Henry and Nereida are a married couple, and why Nereida was staring into space when the play began; she had just gotten some bad news. This is not to say that everything that happens in “Superstitions” becomes completely clear, but that’s much the playwright’s point. She is broadening the definition of superstition. It’s the fear of the unknown, and also the fear of what we think we know, and the fear of what we believe.

Author: New York Theaterh

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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