BWW Review: Rare Revival of OTHERWISE ENGAGED Proves Timely
Otherwise Engaged/by Simon Gray/directed by Linda Alznauer/Upstairs at the Group Rep/through September 8, Saturdays at 4 pm, Sundays at 7 pm
Written in the 1970s, Simon Gray's Otherwise Engaged was a grim look at publisher Simon's (Michael Robb) lack of communication with his family, tenant and friends. He preferred to listen to Wagner as opposed to talking about any issue that came up. Little did Gray know that a mere 44 years later, the internet would pretty much take the place of human interaction. Or did he? Maybe via his play he was predicting the future. Currently at Upstairs at the Group Rep, Otherwise Engaged is receiving a stellar production with a fine cast and directed with exacting precision by Linda Alznauer.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, we are in Simon Hench's London flat, 1975, and before the curtain rises, he has just said goodbye to his wife Beth (Beccy Quinn) who is spending some away time in the country. Preferring to be alone he has set his voice mail to take messages, but...in walk one person after another to encroach on his time and take advantage of his kind nature. These include his tenant Dave (Joseph Marcelo), an irritating dependant, his friend Jeff (Doug Haverty), a selfish mess who is constantly sleeping around and expecting admiration, his brother Stephen (Fox Carney), a school teacher insecure about getting an assistant headmaster position, and then when he gets it, still unsteady about his future, an old friend Wood (Lee Grober), whose girlfriend has been cheating on him and sleeping with Simon, and Davina (Kait Haire), a temptress who wants Simon to publish her book and will stop at nothing to make that happen. And then Beth comes home early to tell him she's pregnant and wants to end their marriage. This last 'intrusion' into Simon's perfectly sensible solitude turns him 360 degrees from a quiet listener into a horrible monster like person who cannot assert anything positive about their long relationship and sends her packing... permanently.
All the characters are problematic and obnoxious, putting others down as 'stupid'.. but it is Simon's heartless attitude about communicating that shows us just how well this play holds up in 2019. It's like a mirror image of how many of us stay in our own private world without connection to the outside. If the play sounds austere, let's get one thing straight: in spite of the seriousness, there is plenty of dark humor. Gray has us laughing from start to finish. We see right through the people, understanding their motives and actions. By keeping the action of the play within a 24 hour period, Gray keeps us anxiously focused and reflective.
Under Alznauer's meticulous direction, the entire ensemble deliver riveting performances. Robb is superb as the complex Simon. Whether simply listening or openly telling someone off, he pulls us in from moment to moment. Haire is alluring as Davina but needs to watch her accent and speech as many audience members complained they did not understand her.
Chris Winfield's set design of Simon's flat is impeccable as usual.
Don't miss Otherwise Engaged! It has wonderfully entertaining writing, direction and acting and ... it will make you think about the world around us and how the people within it need to change.
(photo credit: Doug Engalla)