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Theatre in Review: Samuel (The Tank)

Photo: Toby Tenenbaum

The characters in Alexis Roblan's new play are lost in an epistemological fog. Even René Descartes would be baffled at their inability to nail down the simplest facts. Their troubles are made manifest in the first scene, featuring four sisters -- Charlie, Delia, Jane, Wynette -- at dinner, where the tone is lively but confusion reigns. Their initial disputes are small: Delia insists that the so-called sweet potato on her plate is nothing of the kind; at the very least, it is utterly unlike what Mom used to make. But the misapprehensions soon escalate. Charlie, wondering why her young years were plagued by stomach aches, gets a rude awakening from Wynette: Grandma, it appears, was poisoning her. (This point is greeted with much merriment.) Mom, by the way, is, apparently, in the bedroom, until Wynette blurts out, "Did Mom die?" (She is very much alive and played by the ever-delightful Carolyn Mignini.) Then Charlie wonders, "Didn't we have a brother once?" Put a pin in that last one; we'll get back to it.

As so it goes across nine short episodes, as all sorts of alarming possibilities are cheerfully raised, and just as often, laughingly dismissed. Satanic rituals once practiced in the basement? Maybe. ("I would think I would remember Satanism," muses Wynette, doubtfully.) Did their father stuff Wynette's pet rabbit and present it to Delia? Perhaps -- unless there never was a rabbit. Speaking of Dad, Delia asks, "Did I do something to make him leave? Or just decide to not come back?" And then there's the strange moment in a park where children are playing. Jane insists that Rebecca looks like Charlie, noting that, after all, they share the same genes. Delia, bewildered, responds, "Rebecca is my girlfriend. Who I have sex with. Charlie is my little sister. It's kind of a messed-up thing to -- What are you trying to say, exactly?"

What indeed. To spend time with these siblings is to enter a maze in which facts are unverifiable and memory a sieve. A little bit of this would seem to go a long way, even if Samuel is a relatively brief exercise; oddly, it is frequently amusing and unsettling. At first, it seems like a chattier, almost screwball comedy version of Harold Pinter, if you can imagine such a thing. Later, the supremely dotty sisters call to mind the screwed-up clan in Will Arbery's Plano. By the time the title character -- remember that brother nobody was sure about? -- is heard from, Samuel has acquired an oddball style all its own.

Samuel, which is mostly an audio experience with some associated images, can be experienced in person at The Tank or online. In both versions, the imagery -- dollhouse portraits by You-Shin Chen, with lighting by Kate McGee -- adds an amusing and faintly macabre note. The musical underscoring (reflecting a variety of styles) by Stephanie Singer and sound design by Ray Archie are equally fluent. The cast -- which includes Morgan McGuire (Jane), Keilly McQuail (Charlie), Lori Elizabeth Parquet (Delia), Amy Staats (Wynette), and Jess Barbagallo (Samuel) -- is clearly on the playwright's wavelength, thanks to Dara Malina's deft direction.

Indeed, Samuel, which can also be read as a portrait of a family sitting on a mountain of secrets, feels strangely appropriate for the current moment, when so many of us cannot agree on the fundamental principles of reality. Without ever addressing today's key issues, the play seems to function as a mirror of our current muddle. Maybe we are all slipping down a collective memory hole in pandemic-plagued America. Conceived as a tribute to Roblan's sisters, it seemingly suggests that all you can do is hold on tight to your loved ones. That seems like pretty good advice to me.

The online version of Samuel can be accessed at thetanknyc.org/samuel. --David Barbour

(28 July 2021)

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