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A CurtainUp Review
What Then

By Lisa Quintela

What reality are you living in? --- Tom
I’m living in all of them! --- Bahktiyor

Meg MacCary as Diane & Piter Marek as Bahktiyor
(Photo: Carl Skutsch )
Pairing director Hal Brooks (fresh from his long off-Broadway run of Thom Pain) with playwright Rinne Groff (who penned the Public Theater's The Ruby Sunrise) might have seemed like a winning combination for Clubbed Thumb's latest production, What Then. However the solid duo's good track records have not saved them from conjuring up an hour and a half of quirky clichés and lethargic pacing only to reiterate the notion that some things never change with the passage of time -- namely, dysfunctional families. This fare might sit well with the dramaturges of academia, but a discriminating downtown theater crowd has come to expect something more fresh and less run-of-the-mill from the innovators at Clubbed Thumb.

Set in the vaguely distant future, What Then follows a family hashing out its crumbling relationships and simultaneously deal with a deteriorating planet so worn that its inhabitants are accustomed to wearing gas masks outdoors. What's more, the once vibrant lake outside their modernly designed cookie-cutter kitchen is turning into a dust bowl as family members are increasingly clouded by their own addictions and fantasies.

A flaky Diane (Meg MacCary) tells her husband Tom (Andrew Dolan) that she has quit her job and has embarked on a career change from accountant to architect -- that is, only when she's asleep. In her fourteen to eighteen hour slumbers she dreams she is building an innovative housing complex that will remove the toxicity from the soil around the lake and provide homes to low income occupants. Tom, a corporate shark who is partially responsible for the lake's demise, distances himself from his wife who is unreachable, not only because she idles the day away in her dreams, but also because she slowly slips into insanity. Meanwhile, Tom's juvenile delinquent daughter Sallie (Merritt Wever) and her Turkish boyfriend (Piter Marek) will resort to anything to pass a drug test -- like doping up Tom and stealing Diane's blood -- to ensure that they'll live in ideal housing. This simplified summary is not exactly what one sees in the screwy script in which the futuristic context is intended to make it seem less boring and more mysterious and substantial.

Themes related to denial and the crumbling of the American family unit are nothing new to spectators, and neither is the idea of life being a dream for that matter; after all, Pedro Calderón de la Barca dedicated an entire play to this concept in the 17th century. So when Tom's questions if his reality even exists in lieu of Diane's dreams, what results is a heavy-handed triteness that makes exposes Groff's message as unoriginal. More bothersome are the ridiculous deadpan musical numbers which seem to be quirky just for sake of being offbeat - an overused tactic in downtown theater that produces more of a yawn than a laugh these days. In one of the two songs, Sallie, her boyfriend and Tom apologize to each other for all their wrongdoing by using a children's sing-along player/recorder.

Although the sci-fi premise can at times be too cockeyed to fully explain, it doesn't entirely veil the domestic disputes lurking beneath the absurdity. What it does do is produce overacting to compensate for Groff's stiff and tedious dialogue. Andrew Dolan throws tantrums to portray the moral high-horse of Diane's husband as he defends the threatening motives of his corporation. Meg MacCary seems to evoke Rita Rudner's contrived soft-spoken comedic stylings to show Diane's batty idealism. As the Turkish drug dealer Bahktiyor, Piter Marek maintains an earnest lightheartedness when he slips into Diane's dream of saving the planet. Merrit Wever awards far more complex and vulnerable layers to Sallie, despite all the clichés one might expect from the jaded and aloof character. However, Hal Brooks, who seems to have been asleep at the wheel while directing, fails to steer the pace of this drawn-out play in the right direction.

Although apathy and boredom race to take a front seat, there's time to commend Jo Winiarski stainless steel kitchen setting -- a sterile icebox where no one actually shares a meal together. The bomb shelter-like kitchen doesn't afford much of a view to the venomous world outside, yet pulsating shades of blue and purple serve as clues to the household's changing moods. Ultimately, upstage windows expose the grime polluting the air outside. Lighting designer Kirk Bookman expresses each moment onstage with episodic shifts of hues and bright lights. Even the kitchen counter/bed comes alive with radioactive yellow lights that beam upwards while Diane snoozes on it. Although Bookman's lighting aids the story along, it's occasional repetitiveness overexposes the play's symbolism; it might as well be spelled out for the audience with a big neon sign. Kirche Leigh Zeile's costumes are nothing out of this world; thankfully there are no silvery space suits, but instead characters are clad in cargo pants, silk pajamas, and three-piece suits. Although the contemporary threads are effective reminders of how close we are to an environmentally unsound demise, they fail to compliment Jo Winiarski's more futuristic set.

What then, readers may ask, does this domestic drama have to offer? Portraying the weaknesses and strengths of a family in a banal light (save for the fact that it takes place in the future) Groff and Brooks digress into a long-winded drivel about dysfunctional households. Let's just hope that in the real future, Clubbed Thumb will stick to something less obvious and maintain its visionary reputation.

Editor's Note: Readers may want to read CurtainUp's much more favorable review of Groff's Ruby Sunrise which also includes links to other plays by her in our archives, and the Brooks helmed Thom Pain:
Ruby Sunrise
Thom Pain

Playwright: Rinne Groff
Directed by Hal Brooks
Cast: Andrew Dolan, Meg MacCary, Piter Marek, and Merritt Wever

Set Design: Jo Winiarski
Costume Design: Kirche Leigh Zeile
Lighting Design: Kirk Bookman
Sound Design: Jill BC Du Boff
Music: Joe Popp
Music Supervision: Mike Errico
Running Time: 90 minutes, without intermission
Clubbed Thumb at the Ohio Theater 66 Wooster Street (between Spring and Broome Streets) SmartTix 212-868-4444 .
Tickets: $15, open Seating
From 1/09/06 to 1/28/06; opening 1/12/06
Mon, Thu - Sun at 8pm
Reviewed by Lisa Quintela based on 1/9/06 performance.
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