BWW Reviews: Playing Head Games with THE LETTERS at Mad Cow Theatre
Few things in the world give me the same sensation like experiencing a new play for the first time. We all love the classics and how they are constantly being reinvented, but nothing beats a first viewing of the unfamiliar. Whether good or bad, new plays are excitingly fresh and make the most memorable theatre going experiences.
In John W. Lowell's play set in a nameless Soviet Union agency, Anna, a respected cog in a much larger machine, is called into the office of her Director to play a game of mind-bending verbal catch. THE LETTERS is about maintaining the upper hand, and the terrifying moment when the tables turn and the cat suddenly becomes the mouse.
After summonsing Anna to his office, The Director repeatedly pelts her with a list of arbitrary questions. Questions seeming to have no united purpose until we learn the real reason for Anna's summons: she is being considered for a promotion that would make her colleagues subordinates. With a salary increase and a promise of a fruitful career, The Director uses Anna to extract information about her new team of reports. The Director's madness breaks loose when it is revealed that someone on Anna's team has incriminating evidence; hence, The Letters. It becomes his obsession to get them back, regardless of what it may cost him.
At its lowest, Lowell's writing is slow to reach any inciting incident. Energy is exhausted on mindless work jargon: "How's the project going?" What project? He never says. The conversation is like an Ikea assembly guide-- obtuse. Lowell held the audience in the unknown to the point where I grew restless waiting for something to happen. At its best, Lowell was able to twist and turn his plot into a methodological thriller. As the play begins to derail, the dialogue gets sharper and more exciting. If only he got to this point sooner.
THE LETTERS is directed by Blake Braswell, who appropriately starts the show at a zero. Several minutes of dramatic silence opens the show. As a sense of urgency sets in and stakes exponentially rise, Braswell's production never takes flight. Tempo fails to find a proper heartbeat in this climaxing drama. Much of the first half of THE LETTERS runs at the lethargic pace one would find at a matinee of a Pinter play.
Anna (Jennifer Christa Palmer) spends more than half of the play trying to comprehend The Director's intentions. Since we only know as much as she does, and she has no idea what is going on, the audience lives vicariously through her. Palmer, as an intelligent woman finding her strength onstage, is as talented as she is tall. It was a pleasure to watch Palmer living in the body of her character as she pieces together the mystery and abdicates her role as the mouse in this chase. Perhaps Palmer's stoicism is so strong that the audience never wonders 'if' she will win this linguistic exercise, but rather 'how' she will do it.
Brian Brightman, as the enigmatically frustrating Director, is sinister in his approach to the character. Brightman's performance is banal as he plays a caricature of the worlds worst boss. With no name, or semblance of a life outside of the office (the actor does wear a wedding band), this seems less of an acting choice and more of a decision from the playwright.
Since so much of Lowell's play is designed for audience reactions, everyone should be on the edge of their seats for the 75 minute run. It was clear the audience was involved in the mystery of THE LETTERS, but merely as casual observers. By the end, THE LETTERS should grab the audience by the throat and toss them out of the second story window and onto Church Street gasping for breath. Alas, after the performance I attended, the stairs seemed to be the most viable option.
THE LETTERS plays through September 21st in The Zehngebot-Stonerock Theatre. For tickets visit Mad Cow Theatre.