BWW Review: Unexpected Stage's OBLIVION a Spirited, Thought-Provoking Meditation on Modern Life
Theatre artists have long been accustomed to toggling back and forth between their first love, the stage, and the world of film and television which actually pays the bills. Being equally effective on both platforms is more of a challenge than you might think, however. Actors who make their fortunes in front of the camera have to learn that although an on-screen eyelash flutter can move mountains, once on-stage that discreet screen persona is meaningless. The performer has to make myriad adjustments as she moves between these two aesthetic worlds.
The challenges for playwrights who have made their fortune behind the camera are just as real, but are often underappreciated. Consider Carly Mensch, whose play Oblivion is receiving a spirited, thought-provoking production with Maryland's own Unexpected Stage Company. Mensch is the creative genius behind must-see TV series like Nurse Jackie, Weeds, Orange is the New Black and this year's Glow. Given her success on the small screens it might come as a surprise that her stage work is minimal by comparison; at last count Samuel French has only three plays. But for its compelling characters, its complex plot and parallel character struggles, Oblivion tells us that Mensch's stage plays deserve more attention. She's not perfect by any stretch, but she's getting pretty close.
Oblivion is set in a prosperous Brooklyn home, where we find an upper-middle-class couple (the mom a TV producer, natch), in the midst of an emotional tug-of-war with their teenage daughter. Mother and daughter take turns flinging guilt trips and 'hate you's across the table, while dad leafs trough his New Yorker on the couch. At stake is truth-telling, and the refusal of the daughter to fess up about what she was really doing last weekend.
So far, so yawn; but Mensch knows her liberal audience, and confronts us with a doozie of plot twist. You get the strong impression that if daughter Julie were a 16-year-old sex goddess with multiple boys already notched on her lipstick case, mother Pam would be all help and pills and advice. Not quite; she's been hanging out with Baptists. No sex, no drugs, no alcohol in sight; mother Pam, being a confirmed atheist, is furious when she finally finds out.
(And no, Pam is not a hideous caricature; having grown up in a household of this type, I can assure you Mensch knows whereof she writes).
Julie was introduced to the Baptist Church through her friend Bernard, a Korean-American whose life is centered on film. A devoted follower of movie critic Pauline Kael, he writes fervent fan mail and dreams of going to film school. His family is as disturbed by Bernard's passion for film as Julie's is disturbed by hers for Jesus. Their parents' respective panic seems to draw these teenagers closer together, and it's a comfort to see (for once) that their friendship is, well, an actual friendship. Platonic friendships between the sexes are, of course, ratings poison on TV, but have a special charm on the stage.
At its core, Oblivion is about the emptiness that plagues modern life, and the desperate attempts we make to fill that emptiness with something, anything, regardless of how illusory. Julie tries to find herself through born-again Christianity, Bernard himself through Pauline Kael. Meanwhile Julie's father Dixon, formerly a high-powered Lawyer, flounders around at home smoking dope and writing soft-core trash fiction. He's as lost as his daughter, but hasn't found anything to help him on his way.
Critics have taken Mensch to task for cluttering this play with too much business; and it's true that on television it is possible to introduce one story line, one episode at a time. But when you're in a theatre, it's desirable and indeed more realistic to give audiences multiple story lines, each of which have their own trajectory, all playing out in real time. We don't even need to have everything wrapped up, we just need to know their struggles and understand them.
Director Christopher Goodrich has assembled a dynamite cast, and the intimate environment at the River Road Unitarian Universalist's Fireside Room brings us into contact with truly vivid characters. Ruthie Rado shines as Julie, a confused, determined high school basketball star who is willing to take the plunge (literally) into born-again Christianity in her search for meaning. Jonathan Frye's Bernard, meanwhile, is quietly effective as the child of immigrants, burdened by parental expectations but determined to chart his own course. As the matriarch Pam, Mindy Shaw is a fierce, dynamic presence, tough but unexpectedly vulnerable. And Zach Brewster-Geisz turns in a sympathetic performance as Dixon, the go-along-to-get-along father whose guilt and self-doubt render him nearly powerless in the face of a family spiritual crisis.
The sound design here is subtle but telling; Goodrich has assembled some fine acoustic work from the likes of Bralitz and Krestovsky, mixed in with traditional spirituals, while sound designer Matthew Wills provides atmospheric stuff from the roar of a basketball court to a laundry room's subtle rumble. Kristen Jepperson's set and Andrew Dodge's lights are discreetly effective, but kudos are in order for whoever helped the cast select the slogan t-shirts that the characters sport throughout the play; each provides its own subtle, Brechtian commentary on the action.
Mensch's stage craft isn't perfect: among other things there is a particularly annoying red herring (one of Dixon's revelations which, for all its implications, goes nowhere fast). Red herrings, in the context of a TV series would be instantly forgettable; but in the context of a play, with only moments instead of weeks to focus on the action, they linger as an annoying distraction in the back of one's mind. Still, the questions Oblivion raises are compelling especially for a boomer generation that is often in denial of its blind sides and prejudices. The truth can set you free, but first it has to bite.
Running Time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.
Production Photo: Zach Brewster-Geisz as Dixon (left) and Jonathan Frye as Bernard. Photography by Rachel Ellis.
Oblivion runs through August 6 at the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation Building Fireside Room, 6301 River Road , Bethesda, MD.
Tickets can be ordered by calling 800-838-3006, or online at www.unexpectedstage.org