Posted by: strugglesome | November 8, 2010

A Hard Day’s Night: Friends’ Central School’s Sleepless City

The hardest thing about being a playwright is getting your work read. Or rather, getting your work spoken. Because people will line up to read (and criticize) your writing, but ask them to say the words you’ve toiled to piece together out loud and you are met with horror and dismay. And don’t even try asking them to act it out, you might as well ask for the moon. But Tim Chawaga, a playwright and member of the New York based theater company Aggrocrag (whose Philadelphia Fringe Festival piece I reviewed here) has had a stroke of astonishing luck, because not only did he find people to perform his new piece, Sleepless City, (which premiered in New York with Pipeline Theatre Company in 2009) but they were willing to do it on their own dime and in his home town of Philadelphia. In fact, Friends Central School performed Chawaga’s work as their upper school fall play, giving performances of the piece both at it’s campus in Haverford and at the Paint Bride Art Center in Old City. This may, of course, have something to do with the fact that Chawaga is an alumnus of the institution, but probably has more to do with the fact that Chawaga’s play creates a landscape of characters and moments that would prove an exciting challenge for any actors, not just young ones.

Directed by Terry Guerin, head of the Friends’ Central drama department, the cast of characters runs the spectrum from young professionals wracked with grief to the evaporating urine of Frederico Garcia Lorca, set on a sparse stage that transforms into various locations in New York City with the aid of projected photographs and a headstone or two. Though it’s not in the script, Guerin has added a crew of wordless urbanites (the fate of the underclassmen) floating through (and moving) the scenery and filling the outdoor scenes with the reality of New York’s overflowing population. A lone violin croons Beatles’ songs, echoing the recurring mentions of the band during the course of the show. And while the Beatles might not be a particularly original choice (you may have heard of this small group of Brits and their catchy tunes, in fact, if you are, you now, breathing), our shared cultural familiarity adds to the sense of empathy and sorrow invoked by Rocky Racoon, rather then diminishing it.

The central narrative of the piece centers around Lucy (a shockingly mature and layered Veronica Hall) and her reclusive brother Dan (an appropriately child-like Nick DeFina), who have been left rocked and distraught by their mother’s recent suicide. Unfortunately for Dan and Lucy they get little support from their acquaintances. Lucy’s ex-boyfriend Charlie (Matthew Block) is too self involved and weak-willed to be present for his current girlfriend, the terminally ill Julia (Jane Gordon), let alone Lucy. Lucy’s roommate, Lizze (a cutely spacey Lauren Harris) is distracted by her relationship with the spectacularly douchey Tom (Jesse Pudles), a character who makes me wonder if Chawaga has spent any time in New Haven; the slick and sickening real estate broker Tom could have been plucked right from my college campus.

As the living don’t seem to be particularly helpful, the troubled and agoraphobic Dan finds himself turning to the dead for advice, or at least some aid in trying to find the ghost of his departed mother. And as millions of people have lived and died in New York City, he’s rather spoiled for choice, and soon finds himself chatting with Dylan Thomas (David Yarnell), Joyce Corothers (a fictional temptress played by Guilietta Shoenfeld), Alexander Hamilton (a hilariously surly Bill Fedullo), John Lennon (Sarah Cullinan) and even Lorca’s Piss (an excellently dramatic Douglas Roberts). All these new friends can’t help Dan with his loss, however, and they certainly don’t do much for Lucy, who finds herself at the end of her rope with her brother, her life and her own pain. However, once Dan and Lucy finally begin to connect with each other, everything begins to fall into place, and Chawaga allows his tortured brother-sister duo to end the piece hopefully, moving forward into the future, leaving the ghosts behind. And while that choice may indeed be predictable, Dan and Lucy are both likable enough characters to render it satisfying, if slightly pat.

Chawaga’s writing shines the most in the flowery speeches he’s crafted for Lorca’s Piss and in the snappy comic exchanges featuring Tom (though of course, it’s always easy to write an enormous tool. It’s nice people who are the real challenge). Also well crafted is his Alexander Hamilton, whose final monologue morning the death of his son is both touching and beautifully sparse. His treatment of graves and cemeteries and the intriguing concept of a second-hand grave is deft and sensitively clever, and the concept of memorial and questions about it’s possible futility   are powerful themes that resonant with the audience and call to light our own significance, or lack thereof.  His John Lennon is almost in danger of drifting into the land of caricature, but is just charming enough to pull it off, but his Dylan Thomas is rather one-note and adds little to the story. And the story itself suffers at points from a lack of momentum, faltering in it’s through line, though whether that’s an issue of the pacing or the internal rhythm of the play I couldn’t say. It’s a thinker’s play, a play about talking and mortality, and while quite often it works, sometimes it becomes people sitting on stage proclaiming their internal philosophies and arguing in circles. Though, of course, that is, in fact, so often what life is like too.

Though there are rough edges to this piece, there is enough quality in the raw material to make it an interesting and thoughtful work of theater. The message of Chawaga’s play is simple. Loss is inevitable, as is pain. But recovery is possible, and so is love. They just take more work. As Chawaga writes of loss “The trick isn’t trying to forget, it’s trying to remember in the right way”.  And just because it’s not original doesn’t make it any less true.

Sleeping City has closed it’s brief run, but be on the lookout for more productions of this new work. There are also rumors that Aggrocrag will be making another appearance in Philadelphia this winter, and if we are lucky those rumors may come true.

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