BWW Review: Siobhan O'Loughlin Plunges Into Politics and Psychology in BROKEN BONE BATHTUB
When it comes to theater, there's immersive and there's immersive. Siobhan O'Loughlin's BROKEN BONE BATHTUB is immersive in a literal sense: the Brooklyn-based playwright sits in a bathtub full of bubbles as she tells the story of her most severe bicycle accident, though the play is really about the existential crisis triggered by the collision in Grand Army Plaza.
Like My Name Is Gideon (which ran at the Rattlestick Theater last fall after some 600 performances in private homes in four countries), BROKEN BONE BATHTUB travels from home to home, or bathroom to bathroom. Audience size varies with square footage, and I imagine in New York--where people live in tight quarters--the show plays to even fewer people than in, say, Minnesota.
The night I trekked to the residential part of Astoria the day after a major snowstorm, cop cars, ambulances, and firetrucks formed a blockade. Just getting to the show was therefore an adventure, involving a subway, cab, and walk. When I finally reached the upstairs of a home whose address is scarcely visible from the street, I found myself in a small living room with the host, her friend, and an outgoing married couple in Queens who regularly attend off-off Broadway and experimental theater.
As with all immersive work, the experience is fluid. Theater is a living art form to begin with, but when you add intensive audience participation and change venues nightly, the experience is even more changeable. When the two final guests arrived, the bathtub began to fill and the five of us (plus host) crowded into a small bathroom with an angled ceiling and tiny alcove in the quaint 1900 home (which added to the overall effect).
Not every actor would feel comfortable performing naked two to five feet from the audience, even if shrouded by fragrant bubbles that hardly dissipate over the course of an hour. (Given the talk of veganism, communes, and artisanal soap, I couldn't help but wonder--with characteristic perversity-- what chemical extended the life of the bubbles.) But O'Loughlin seems completely at home in the tub.
The 2014 accident coincided with the killing of Eric Garner, the unrest in Ferguson surrounding Michael Brown's death, and protests about fracking, so the show is explicitly political. And when O'Loughlin isn't bathing cum performing, she works as a social and political activist. In 2017, with New York still shell-shocked from the daily horror that is "the Trump regime," the show's political dimension has only intensified.
But ultimately it's O'Loughlin's open and compassionate heart that gives meaning to BROKEN BONE BATHTUB and inspires others to share freely about their own struggles. After some ice-breaking chat about Blockbuster Video, O'Laughlin asked if anyone had ever broken a bone. This would ordinarily be a innocuous question, but that snowy Friday in Astoria, one of the guests had a gauze bandage over her forearm. When no one raised a hand, O'Loughlin asked the college-aged woman what had happened. With trepidation, she said she'd been cut by a knife just a few days earlier. It turns out the knife-wound was self-inflicted; she'd cut herself seven times in the wake of a tough breakup.
Instead of derailing the show, this heartbreaking revelation brought forth a similar degree of honesty in others. O'Loughlin had her stomach pumped at 15, and I shared my somewhat comical Valium and Advil episode in 2002. "Have you ever cried in public?" and "Who's your go-to person in an emergency" yielded interesting (and not all tragic) answers. My go-to has always been my prominent lawyer mom, who received several hostile emails from the manager of Santa Barbara Athletic Club in the early 2000s.
It seems that members were "disturbed" by my underwater weeping during nightly mile swims. And it wasn't members in the plural. It was the old bag who sat on the suit dryer in the locker room for what seemed like an hour (talk about disturbing the peace) and whose incessant coughing must been the inspiration for Billy Crystal in Forget Paris when he bangs on the hotel wall and screams: "Hey! Attack of the phlegm creatures!" Trauma has always been a breeding ground of comedy and this show is no exception.
Full disclosure: Not only do I not know how to ride a bike, but I'm extremely hostile to bicycles in the city, and I believe they should be banned except for delivery or by the two rivers and in Central Park. If you can sell me on a show (in Astoria, no less) about trauma connected with a bike accident (which could have been prevented by, you know, not riding a bike), you've done your job as a playwright and actor.
O'Loughlin's naturalness might lead some to doubt that she's she's really acting. Breaking with tradition, the performer doesn't share her script with critics. But the vignettes between the unscripted engagement with the audience are tightly written and skillfully delivered. It's all the more impressive because in a traditional play, the actor knows (and prepares on the basis of) what co-stars will say. To maintain focus with spontaneous material nightly is a feat of improvisation. The five or so minute monologue at the show's conclusion is truly poetic and imposes a retrospective unity on the amorphous material that precedes it. BROKEN BONE BATHTUB is brave, funny, and surprisingly uplifting.
Broken Bone Bathtub runs through April 1, 2017. Check website for details.