In Scott Organ’s City (the Flea), five friends alternately nurse and exploit “the guy”—a Buddha-bellied man one of them has accidentally hit with a truck. Though visibly uninjured, he lacks speech, affect, wallet, and name. Present in almost every scene, and the subject of consternation when not, the guy stares into space, his inanition animating the characters around him.
From such a soaringly static donnée the members of the Filling Station wring edgy comedy, if strident drama. The guy’s role is fifth business of the purest order, and John Combs nails it with transcendent deadpan: the same facial configuration scans as frightened or frightening, bemused or amused. Less successful are the actors with lines, which range from offhand brilliant (“I have, in fact, too many ideas”) to sitcommissioned (“Coffee?” should not defuse a scene, let alone two). Three of the captors see in the man’s catatonia their fortune: a photographer on the make, an ad exec handling a big account (Jason Nuzzo, energizingly slick), and a failed actress who installs herself as the guy’s agent. The photog’s girlfriend is jealous of the guy—the public wants pictures of him, not her—and hopes to win commitment from the inattentive shutterbug by impregnating herself, via her rival’s apparently functioning apparatus. Sole sympathizer Davy (Jody Lambert) dubs the guy “Steve”—to the chagrin of those who value his anonymity as a hot commodity.
“Steve might fit, but City is a misnomer: despite Davy’s protests, there is no sense that metropolitan pressure is grinding his charge—and everyone else—down. The culprit might be a script that moves from the good sort of hysterical to the bad. —Ed Park
White Like Me
In the first of the deliberately strident, staticky short scenes composing John Clancy’s The Paper Man (Present Company), Jake receives word he’s been fired from his human-resources position. No reason is given for the sudden dismissal—he thought he was getting a promotion. But it seems the mad-as-hell playwright wants it assumed he’s homing in on a tale of heartless downscaling. What follows can be taken as a look at an everyman’s pathetic downward spiral, an explanation for the trend toward ballistic behavior in today’s faceless workplace.
But what if Jake is already somewhat unbalanced—as he appears to be right from the get-go—and is therefore handed that pink slip for legitimate reasons? Then the dramatic punch has been severely pulled, and Clancy is merely telling the story of one incipient crackpot’s descent into predictable madness. “You’re such a stupid, terrible man,” Jake’s reasonable wife yells at him when she’s finally reaching the end of her extralong tether. She’s right: the guy won’t talk to her, makes only halfhearted attempts at job interviews, willingly gives himself over to the thrall of black and white men plugging racial hatred, and eventually—conformist tie gone, shirttails hanging out—murders a black man on the inhuman subway. (Clancy gives his ending away long before any critic can get around to it.)
Fortunately for the audience, the versatile playwright with a knack for pithy dialogue is also the director and—a triple-threat talent—plays Jake. In these capacities he acquits himself so well that for the longest time it seems as if he’s saying more about his paper man than is the case. Among the ensemble milling around while a fuzzy loudspeaker announces systemic (and symbolic) breakdowns, Del Pentecost—calmly spewing antiblack prejudice—stands out. —David Finkle
The China Syndrome
The ladies at the matinee savored The Joy Luck Club (St. Clement’s Theatre). “It’s just like the book,” one whispered. “And so much feeling!” trilled another. Yes, there’s lots of emoting in Susan Kim’s adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel about four Chinese immigrant mothers and their four American daughters. With the play running about two hours, each of its 18 episodes—spanning 70 years—averages about seven minutes. The short takes include several horrific tragedies—a mother’s suicide in 1920s China, a little boy swallowed up by the sea in the 1960s, daughters abandoned and lost by a dying mother. These sequences are interspersed with comic and dramatic vignettes, as the older women strive to knock a sense of history, culture, and unimaginable deprivation into their oblivious daughters’ heads. Some of this works, but it’s a tough go. Director Tisa Chang deals with the script’s excessive narration via a standing-in-place-and- reciting-with-feeling style: think school pageant. She also mines everything for the cute or heartrending. That said, the four actresses who play the older Chinese women all have moments of authority and eccentric charm. Kati Kuroda, for one, is delightful as the crafty child-bride who tricks her in-laws into sending her away—rich—and Tina Chen projects a haunting ferocity as the former aristocrat possessed by paranoia. The younger generation pales beside them—sometimes the costumes are more alive than the people. Despite these shining silks, no magical illusion of old China emerges. Instead, what you see is just picture-making machinery and a bunch of brightly colored moving parts. —Francine Russo