BWW Review: A Cleverly Shaded Exploration of Life's Paths in OR, AN ASTRONAUT PLAY at The Tank
Or is a conjunction used to link alternatives. Life is a conundrum which offers no definitive paths or guarantees of fulfillment. That is the territory explored in Johnny G. Lloyd's cleverly shaded Or, An Astronaut Play. An individual can choose to be a teacher or a doctor. A policeman or a politician. The odds of success for achieving those dreams are varied depending on station or circumstance or even dumb luck. This play is about how life works, or is supposed to work, or doesn't. Or, maybe it's really just an astronaut play.
Tom (Harrison Unger) is the stereotypical embodiment of the straight, white American male. He's obviously not the brightest bulb but he is getting a promotion at work. He shares a cubicle at SnackyCakes with his live-in girlfriend Claire (Tay Bass). When the play opens, he is taking a quiz online. Claire comments, "people still do those?" After answering some basic questions such as picking a favorite color, Tom gets his answer. His recommended career is astronaut.
"That's big news, isn't it?" Tom believes the choice of astronaut makes sense as "I always liked space movies." Instead of going to work, he enrolls in astronaut school. He meets Daria (Caturah Brown), an intense, focused student who is black. She works in the Admissions office to pay her tuition. She has been dreaming of becoming an astronaut for twenty years.
Claire is very upset about Tom's spontaneous new direction but decides to follow his pursuit. She's clearly not sure what path her life should take but strongly desires human connections. What will happen to their relationship if they are sent on separate missions? The fourth member of this class is Paul (Jonathan Cruz). He is self-defined as a hobbyist and a dabbler. Is his passion to travel to outer space more or less committed than his time doing origami?
Unfortunately for the trainees, the school is downsizing and only one candidate will be chosen for a mission ranging from five to one hundred years. Will Daria, clearly the intellectual standout, fulfill her childhood ambition? Will Paul finally proceed down a solid path forward. Does Claire want to be an astronaut or just gaze at the pretty stars?
Tom knows that there are "twenty, or thirty, different things I could do." A good looking young white man with inborn expectations of success can "literally do anything." So why pick astronaut? "This is the first thing that chose me. That's how life works, right?" While this play is nominally about a space race, larger questions about life, fairness, ambiguity and privilege orbit around these characters.
What makes Or, An Astronaut Play so intriguing is its tone and structure. The lightness of the dialogue suggests a witty little trifle filled with dashes of absurdism. The themes are not heavy handed but instead float in the vast void for the listener to absorb. Asked but not answered: "when you're adrift how will you pretend everything is ok?"
Izmir Ickbal's effective and sleekly science fictional set design and Bailey Costa's lighting design nicely frame this story and its various locations. As directed by William Steinberger, the clear use and movement of four chairs makes the many scene changes transition smoothly. All four actors deliver fine performances. Each evolves quickly and often in a quirky manner. The tone is consistent - funny and thoughtful - with an underlying punch of knowledge gained through life experience. Twenty somethings realizing there is no one path in life. Is there any path? How your brain manages that crisis of information may determine happiness and, or, fulfillment.
In our universe, there seems to be more than adequate space for us all. In the crowded gamble that is life on Earth, the competition is harsher, or, perhaps, systemically rigged. Mr. Lloyd's play is enjoyable to follow from the fun asides to the more serious observations. The tone is neither too jokey nor too serious. Balanced like life, I guess. Adding in an excellent ending, Or, An Astronaut Play is a Venus-sized theatrical piece which provides Jupiter-sized pleasure.
Or, An Astronaut Play will be performed at The Tank through January 26, 2020. Patrons are strongly advised to dress lightly as the small theater can get very, very warm. A coat check is provided and highly recommended.