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Also: Notes from Underground and Russian Doll.

[sic]

East Hall Theater; ends Sat., Nov. 20

It's tempting to say that playwright Melissa James Gibson's pained comedy about postcollege, pre-middle-age malaise is how David Mamet might write an episode of Friends—except that I don't much care for Mamet, I've never been able to stand Friends, and I like Gibson's play quite a lot.

Mamet's too mean-spirited, anyway, but Gibson does have his ear for the elaborate, staccato routines of daily speech, and she also expresses much of the affection of that damn NBC sitcom without the sopping romantic gush. There's an insistent chamber music in the conversational rhythms of three young neighbors in an apartment complex: self-involved Babette (Michelle Lewis), who claims to be writing a novel but who mostly seems to be mooching cash from all available sources; Theo (Chris Bange), who's supposedly writing an epic modern music composition yet spends an inordinate amount of time yearning for a repeat of a one-night stand with Babette; and Frank (Jonah Von Spreecken), a tongue-tied neurotic studying to be an auctioneer in between bouts of depression over a breakup with boyfriend Larry, the unseen hipster whose shared acquaintance has united this trio in misery.

Such misery, the plaintive undertones of desperation in these wisecracking voices, keeps [sic] from sinking into sitcommy indulgence. Gibson knows there's something panicked in this generation's navel gazing (the play's title suggests a nervous unwillingness to take credit for personal blunders) and that obsessive talk is the only thing that keeps everybody from imploding. These people don't even necessarily like each other, but loquacious aggravation bonds them. The dialogue is often fuguelike—characters sometimes speak the same phrase simultaneously, or in quick succession, or share the words in a sentence—and draws attention to the artificiality of the way trapped comrades communicate.

Mostly, though, it's just funny, and delivered by a disarming cast. It's always good to see Von Spreecken, ever the adorable loser; Lewis deftly resembles any number of anxious, adamant women you've known; and a hysterical Bange, as the ersatz lothario and hair-trigger paranoiac, demonstrates the nimblest grip on Gibson's dialogue. That dexterity is a tricky business: The wordplay has a heightened quality that isn't supposed to sound "real," but is supposed to resonate authenticity (as Babette observes after a party at Larry's, "The chit-chat had a weight to it that somehow seemed to avoid pretension"). Director Darian Lindle doesn't always maintain that balance—only Bange comes down square in the middle of where he's supposed to be—though she has done a fine job of conveying Gibson's wry suggestion that these fitful, frustrated people are, for better or worse, what it means to have friends. STEVE WIECKING

Notes from Underground

RED; ends Sun., Nov. 21

When it first appeared, Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground blew the circuits on how folks thought about fiction. This slim book heralded the form and content of the 20th-century novel. Its narrative is nonlinear and internalized; its subject matter is a complicated inferno of social, sexual, and psychological spite; its narrator is a dyspeptic wretch tangled up in loathing and contradiction—the everyman refashioned as the nowhere man.

Despite the book's flighty interiority, it proves infinitely adaptable as a dramatic work, if only because the narrator's plight is transferable to any situation where an alienated, neurotic individual finds himself beset by the hell of other people. And yet it's still a shock to see Defibrillator's adaptation open with the quotidian vision of petty clerks scrambling around an office space littered with piles of shredded documents. Our narrator—played by a bearded, furrow-browed Aaron Blakely, his black overcoat and hat drifting like a shadow among the starched white shirts of his co-workers—bumbles into this slapsticky scene, which plays like a Keystone Cops dance of bureaucratic confusion.

It's a brilliantly disorienting move by adapter/director Joby Emmons, and it sets a distinctly hectic tone for what follows. Of the many directions in which one could take Notes, Emmons opts to follow the path of bathos, eking out the darkly comic elements in Dostoyevsky's narrative. It's a wise decision; too much kvetching and paranoia would, while maintaining a strict authenticity, paradoxically underwhelm a good staging. However, the play wouldn't work without giving at least a taste of the Underground Man's venomous soliloquizing, and Emmons achieves this by intermittently freezing the action and spotlighting Blakely while a recorded voice-over broadcasts a snippet of overheated nastiness. It's probably heretical to call for more voice-over, but there should have been—not only does it highlight the convoluted poetry of Dostoyevsky's language, it also serves to punctuate and deepen the chaos onstage.

The only other place the production falls short is in the Underground Man's tortured confrontations with the prostitute Liza (played by Hanna Lass). These scenes of squelched salvation provide the moral centerpiece to the novel, revealing to the narrator his own degraded and untenable life. Here, however, the Liza interludes come across as somewhat ponderous, not quite jelling with the overall mood of the play, though it's difficult to say what might have worked better. As it stands, these scenes on their own carry just enough elemental oomph and are buoyed by the provocative and daring intelligence informing this work as a whole. RICHARD MORIN

Russian Doll

Consolidated Works; ends Sun., Nov. 21

The thing about creating a piece collectively is that you still need someone whose sole job it is to step back and announce with authority that whatever it is everybody's doing just isn't working. TheatreRUN's ConWorks-commissioned world premierehas a writer (Andy Miara) but was shaped by the ensemble without a credited director. It shows.

The internationally composed troupe is a solid one. Each of the performers—Martine Eichenberger, Molly Feingold, Sophie Fletcher, Jimmy Garver, Adam Paolozza, and Anne Sorce—has an enviable ability to reach for broad effects while still picking up the subtleties of human nature. It serves them well, since that ability is the whole show. Aside from a few set pieces and occasional music underscoring, the adroit ensemble creates both the characters and their environments, using versatile props (a rope, pipes, etc.) and physical theatrics.

The main thrust of the evening is a tale about a young Russian girl, Natasha, who runs off to America with her beloved after her parents arrange a marriage of financial convenience to an older man. Natasha's decision results in a child and fleeting happiness but also an uncomfortable comprehension of how little control we have over those we love with sometimes oppressive determination. The Old World folksiness here means some dialogue groaners that are intended to be guilelessly charming—"Natasha, you're incorrigible!" or, ugh, a bit in which incorrigible Natasha refers to her "silly ways and girlish pranks"—but you let them go because everybody is so committed to the tale spinning.

What you can't let go is how the tale, and the Brechtian conceit of how that story is being told by workers in Natasha's doll factory, turns a bit tedious, especially as it's interrupted twice by two vaguely Twilight Zone–ishmodern sketches: a rather clever one in which some terrified office drones realize that their daily routine can continue without their participation; the other a slightly tiresome bit in which a guy with relationship troubles tries to go back and tweak old mistakes. Someone else might be able to tell you what in hell the sketches have to do with incorrigible Natasha, but you're stuck with me and, sorry, I'm at a loss. If I were going to reach, I'd note that everything has something to do with people feeling a sense of dislocation in their own lives, people who'd give anything to go back into their pasts with the grievous understanding they've achieved in the present, but it still wouldn't make the disparate sketches inform or enlarge each other in any way.

So, you end up at this disappointed impasse with ol' Natasha and company. Fine performers. Accomplished stagecraft. But no one around to drop a definitive "no" when it's most needed. STEVE WIECKING

 
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