BWW Reviews: 'R' We Moving Right Along?
Well, it's quite a relief to know that even after an earth shattering tragedy reduces the world to a mere (yet nevertheless functioning) shell of what it once was, the R train is still running. Not only does it continue to run, it now comes to serve as the setting of this post- apocalyptic play which provides as many discussions, controversies and philosophical arguments as there are stops on the route of this local train.
The Classic Stage Company, a group responsible for the presentation of numerous "large scale and epic" production of classics to a New York audience over the last forty-five years, introduces Jason Pizzarello's After People Like You as a workshop production at the East 13th Street for a limited engagement; based on the concept of this play and all it has to convey to an audience, there is little doubt that audiences will hear of this show again in the future. Under the direction of Anna Brenner, this play is a brilliant and thought-provoking expedition into four human hearts torn not only from the recent events which shook the world to its deepest core, but also by simple actions that question the essence of an individual's sense of humanity. Apocalypse or no apocalypse, this play truly makes the audience ponder what, truly, makes existence so difficult: is it a reaction to what occurs around us, or what others do (or choose not to do) that makes us so prone and susceptible to being hurt?
Pizzarello, who is both a Fordham University graduate and a member of the New York Army National Guard, teams up with the Blue Riders to bring about this spectacular play about four people, discovered to have once been close friends, who board the same train at the end of a recent party; from Bay Ridge onward do these former friends gradually come to recall the dreadful events which separated them for years thereafter. Keri (Lily Dorment), Anna (Marla McConville), Tim (Davy Raphaely) and Diego (Joel Ripka) live in a New York which, despite being plagued by recent events brought about by an unknown cause, is surprisingly similar to the New York of the present day. The world is a rather harsh place with danger around every corner and a clear lack of that "spark" which makes human life so precious; the only difference is that the magnitude of such a situation has left the city with a physical wound that is gradually closing, and a palpable feeling of fear that its inhabitants are forced to acknowledge in their everyday lives. Existence has become more of a state of mind, and what it should be is usurped by the reality of what is. As Keri explains in a rather moving part of this reading, "I see plenty of heroes but no saviors, no answers. You say you see communities. I see deserted villages raising no one, not even self. Not awareness. Not anything." It is, indeed, becoming no place for human life.
Although it is unclear as to whether the entire world suffers from this catastrophe which occurred almost one year ago (although it is fairly suggestive as to what happened), this is hardly the most relevant aspect of this show; it seems that the chaos going on externally at this moment is an outward projection of the inner turmoil faced by these characters as they make their way from Brooklyn to Forest Hills. After such an event, one would expect things to have altered considerably, but this "apocalypse" is more of a chance for personal purging than it is a destructive force. People are allowed to start anew, yet nevertheless teeter on the line between the familiar and what remains fairly unknown, allowing them just the right amount of balance to continue drudging through their lives. For example, these characters speak of their travels to "the" Forest Hills, as though that which is fact at a given moment has changed ever so slightly to create a place a bit more foreign than it started out.
What is so extraordinary about this play is its ability to transform a rather simple idea into something so complex and thought provoking. If such a catastrophic event did happen in New York, people would not expect life to go on as it was before, albeit with a bit more fear instilled in the hearts of those who live there; people would expect the magnitude of an apocalypse to shatter their own private worlds forever. People are not meant to experience the consequences of something so profound by living to remember and recite what horrors occurred in a time long ago; if so, the world would have been drastically different, its destruction and barren lands giving little or no indication of the populations which once walked the earth. As mentioned, this is more of a personal purging that needed to occur, a reawakening that encompasses the lives of these four characters in a way that questions the entire plot of this play in relevance to our own lives.
What these four speak about on the train is in no way grand or even remotely fascinating at times; Pizzarello takes simple conversation and makes it mean more than it ever has in a world in which moments are so fleeting and typically go by unnoticed and extremely under-analyzed. As these characters discuss their past and present lives, there are such potent moments of anger and times when such strides are made to make another feel like absolute garbage, only to be followed by moments of silence where a unanimous respite from the storm is certainly needed. For example, Keri tries to convince Anna that animals are as important to the world as human beings, while Diego is taken aback by the amount of time Tim has been back home after his tour had ended; Anna then proceeds to injure Tim's prosthetic leg by dancing with him on the moving subway cart, while Tim and Diego argue about what it means to have one's own opinions about what an individual wishes to do with his life, based on what kind of person he perceives himself to be.
Pizzarello manages to take simple conversation and turns it into a philosophical debate - something that the average person can do but never truly took the time out to do, especially on a subway car filled with complete strangers. The audience becomes the unseen members on board this train with these four individuals, and becomes so engrossed in the conversations at hand that there is actually a bit of implicit involvement on the audience's behalf. We all become somehow connected, which is what the playwrights emphasizes so in this play.
That's the beautiful thing about this show, though: these four characters are not strangers, and it is because of this that they can act so essentially "human" towards each other, despite the circumstances of the world around them. What this play shows is that it does not take an apocalypse, a cleansing of current predicaments and evils, to bring out the humanity in each of us; it is an inherent quality, and all we wish to do as people is to understand the world in which we live. Regardless of whether or not there is a catastrophe, this desire to ultimately "live" never truly disappears. This turmoil that each character reveals, mainly focused around how life simply slips out of the grasp of those who need it most due to the actions of other people, is the "spark" that people search for - that attempt to keep life oneself afloat in the midst of trouble and despair, to fundamentally remain alive - which remains present even after the difficulties endured by people.
This play does not really teach anything to its audience as much as it does show us how people will never stop being people, no matter how much of their world has been shattered. This show does well as a staged reading, as the simplicity of costume and set truly bring out the significance of the play. Like the stark yet meaning -infused nature of a Samuel Beckett production, the need for simplicity to focus on the story unfolding is what is considered important, and I would say that this show is indeed important, as well as masterful and necessary for people to see. It is not a feel good story about hope or lost chances gained once again by deserving people; it is about reality in a slightly different shape, but nonetheless about people in their most basic yet beautiful form. It is truly a wonder to behold, even if one can no longer take the R train to get there.
After People Like You was presented at the East 13th Street Theater, located on 136 East 13th Street, from December 11th thru December 14th. Please visit Classic Stage Company at www.classicstage.org to view a list of upcoming shows as part of the group's 2013-2014 season.
Photo Credit: Yi Zhao
All quotes obtained from show program/script of After People Like You by Jason Pizzarello