Review by Tulis McCall
17 Jan 2010
What is holding this play together is the excellent job these two actors are doing. And the writing ain’t bad either. All the way through I kept thinking of a movie I saw years and years ago that followed two Hasidic Jewish men on their way home. They walk through a park and when it rains they duck into a small pavilion. While they wait out the rain they talk ideas, beliefs, theories. They talk and talk and talk. They get very loud and noisy. They whisper. They are IN IT – fabulous.
That’s pretty much all that goes on here, talking, with the added benefit that the talk is steeped in plot layers so dense it will make your head spin. The intrigue begins from the second you enter the theatre. The set of this animation studio contains two desks, one junk food machine, lots of drawings of fantasy creatures and quite a number of dolls of the same. The music is reminiscent of the Loony Toons medleys. Then Louis Armstrong launches into Whistle While You Work. All pretty light and jolly. Until you spot the poster from Chien Andalu (the movie by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel in which the first scene is someone having their eye sliced open by a straight razor). Whoever owns that poster will have more than fairy dust up her or his sleeve. We are forewarned – and the curtain has yet to rise.
We soon meet the owner of the poster, a twisted little cruller in the person of Barbara (Tina Benko) – who is gifted and driven and passionate about her work as an illustrator. She is also obsessive compulsive with a dash of maniac tossed in for good measure. Her office mate Dex (Matthew Lawler) is actually more loaded with talent than Barbara, but he also boasts a short fuse that couldn’t survive more responsibility than background animation. Proof of this is in his recently terminated animation project, failed marriage and subsequent sobriety.
On the day in question – Christmas – Barbara has come in to the office to work on an idea she has pitched for the current project Coffee Beanies, which is stalled. She assumes she will be alone to focus on her work and has brought the requisite number of pills and vitamins, plus water, instant coffee crystals and some harmless and easy to consume carbohydrates. Dex, choosing to avoid Christmas altogether, has been in the office for several days and using the vending machine to supply all his nutritional needs.
Their actual meeting is tense and surprising. Much of this script is surprising which is its strength. Shawn Nacol is not satisfied with having characters leap across the brook from stone to stone. He has them slip, tumble in, get themselves out and up onto the bank only to send them to a different location and have them try again for different reasons. These two characters start out wary of each other and end up feasting on one another in more ways than one. Like scientists who are on the brink of discovering or destroying an important link in evolution, these two engage one another so quickly and so deeply that they end up on opposite sides of the Imagineering divide where they dig in for a do or die battle. It is ideas vs. ideals; telling a story vs. selling a story, and whose imagination is it anyway?
It is a fascinating pas de deux that goes from zero to 60 in seconds, then throttles down to a canter, stalls out and shoots off again. Nacol takes us into the world of animation in such detail that we are deceived into thinking we understand what they are saying. And these two actors are up to every minute of the task, especially Ms. Benko, whose performance is so nuanced she almost appears to be spinning it into thread while you watch.
Where the play fails is in the logistics. It is surprising that these details were allowed to muddy the water of such a fine, intriguing and well-directed work. They could and can still be easily remedied. A few: Dex begins the play confused as to the day and time, and it is a running question throughout when he only had to look at his computer or phone for the answer. These two people are supposedly in this office for a week. Solid. They don’t order take-out; they never email or phone anyone, they receive no calls or emails – and we never find out WHY it is taking a week for the rendering to get done, and WHY doesn’t someone step out for some air, or better yet go home ands sleep in a bed. Three days – I would buy that. But a week? And the finale, clever as it was, defies credibility. Still I’d give it an 85, because it swings, and this is writing you can dance to. Truly.