Anna Greenfield and Raul Sigmund Julia in New York Living by Thomas Bradshaw.
BOTTOM LINE: A VERY mixed bag of short plays, but there will likely be something for everyone.
The Great Recession is a collection of six short plays and involves six playwrights, six directors, and over 35 young actors who are members of "The Bats," the Flea Theater's resident acting company. And as you can tell by the title, there is a common theme - the recession, and how these times of economic uncertainty impact us in various ways. As is often the case with these collections, some of the plays are excellent, some are decent, and some are somewhat difficult to sit through.
The evening begins with Adam Rapp's Classic Kitchen Timer, in which an unemployed woman takes part in a "social experiment." Sarah Ellen Stephens gives one of the best performances of the evening as the conflicted woman, and the entire play is an interesting mix of dark human drama and creepy clownish theatre. While the conceit is interesting (and yes, there is a reason why there is a watermelon sitting on a table), the play suffers right at the climax, when a chorus of men screams out a manifesto of sorts. This "message" went on a bit too long and was almost impossible to understand; to my mind, it was all a bit heavy-handed and unnecessary, and took away from what had been, up until then, an interesting beginning.
The next two plays were my favorite pieces. Fucked, by Itamar Moses, is stylistically the most traditional of the six plays in which a young couple talks in an apartment about an upcoming trip. Both actors (Jessica Pohly and Dorien Makhlogi) are superb, and create rich characters that are nonetheless extremely familiar. And director Michelle Tattenbaum wisely opens up what could have easily been the obvious "couch facing audience" staging concept. Thomas Bradshaw's New York Living begins with two actors struggling with a difficult rehearsal; the play excellently captures how, at least in New York City, who you must live with (in order to afford rent) can dictate your romantic attachments. The style here is intentionally over the top and amusingly satirical: for example, each time the word "recession" is spoken the actors pause and pose for the audience. In different ways, Fucked and New York Living are the two plays that seemed to me the most honest about the impact of economic hard times on young city dwellers - that is, those who both make up the Flea's artistic community and are also the core of their target audience.
Severed, by Erin Courtney, is the final play before the brief "beer pause" (in which the company runs out to sell the audience beer and soda). A man and woman wait to be interviewed for a documentary on the recession, while bits of other interviews occur behind them. Severed was the weakest of the first four plays: by using interview snippets to describe effects of the recession, I feel Courtney hits us over the head. Yet at the same time, these interviews were more interesting than the main action going on in front of them.
However, Severed was better than the two plays that followed. Sheila Callaghan's Recess shows an apocalyptic future in which people have seemingly lost everything. Recess exemplifies everything I dislike about downtown theatre – a bunch of random things happen all over the stage just because they can. Two people sit rocking in a corner, and another person lies dead in a pool of blood. While I realize that some folks might enjoy this kind of theatrical collage, I didn't care for it at all. Finally, while I might have enjoyed Will Eno's Unum a bit more if it had come earlier in the evening, I've seen this conceit before, and done better (an object - here a dollar bill - is followed as it travels from person to person). If you liked Eno's Thom Paine (based on nothing) (as I did), you might find Unum especially disappointing.
I especially enjoyed the set changes between each play, in which the entire company runs out in costume and changes the set in full view of the audience (one actor starts his play fully naked, and that is how he changes the set). Rather than using dim lighting and music to "distract" the audience, these set changes were extremely energetic, quicker than I would have thought possible, and helped keep the energy up between plays.
I've worked on many of these short play evenings, and like The Great Recession, they are almost always a mixed bag. I think they work best when there is a mixture of writing and performance styles; in this respect, The Great Recession is a successful collection. To be fair, the variety also means that others might enjoy exactly the plays I liked the least, and vice versa. I'd recommend The Great Recession to anyone who is interested in short (10-20 minute) plays; while uneven, it is a good representation of this deceptively difficult theatrical form.
(The Great Recession plays at the Flea Theater, 41 White Street, between Church St. and Broadway, through December 30th. Performances are mostly at 7pm and 10pm, with a few 3pm matinees; the performance schedule is slightly different each week, so go to www.theflea.org for an exact schedule and additional show info. The show runs approximately 2 hours with a brief "beer pause." Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by calling 212-352-3101 or at www.theflea.org.)