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Theatre in Review: The Future is Not What it Was (Kindling Theatre Company/Walkerspace)

Rhett Owen, Michael Rabe, Maya Kazan. Photo: Ian Douglas

The new production at Walkerspace is a classic good-news/bad-news situation, so let's get the dreary part out of the way first.The Future is Not What it Was is thoroughly derivative, overlong by nearly an hour, and contains at least two dispensable roles. It ends on a note that confirms what one has suspected all along, that it is going nowhere. It plays like a first draft, and not an especially compelling one.

The basic situation of Michael Rabe's play -- a pair of post-collegiate stoners wasting time in their crappy apartment while an array of female ding-a-lings come and go -- owes everything to Kenneth Lonergan's This is Our Youth, Howard Korder's Boys' Life, and Hurlyburly, by Rabe's father, David. (You can probably think of other examples.) Billed as "a dark comedy," it isn't terribly dark and is only occasionally comical. There are a number of grim-reaper plot elements -- one character keeps the ashes of a beloved dog (named Polonius) on the shelf, another dies unexpectedly in an accident, and there's a tragic family secret, which, when revealed, doesn't amount to much of anything. Plays like these are usually meant to reveal something about the sensibility of a generation -- this is our youth, if you will -- but the only thing The Future is Not What it Was reveals is how much its characters resemble those of better plays written 20 or 30 years ago.

But if the production is negligible as drama, it nonetheless presents a striking and clearly gifted company of young actors, all of them making their New York debuts. (They were students of the noted acting teacher William Esper.) Rabe also stars as Sean, who uses a variety of assumed identities to pick up girls; he has some of the manner and all of the presence of the young Ethan Hawke, all of which goes a long way toward making Sean bearable. (He also gets most of the laughs in the play's more amusing second half.) He plays especially well with Maya Kazan (Zoe's younger sister) as Laura, the only woman in this menagerie possessed of a heart and a brain. Laura, a neighbor who takes up with Tom, Sean's generally luckless roommate, then grows tired of him, all the while keeping an eye on Sean, arguably undergoes the most changes, thereby making her the most interesting person in a generally static play. She also has a nice way of pausing and telegraphing all sorts of conflicting emotions before making a conventional remark, thereby endowing the line with considerable additional dramatic heft.

But even those cast members without a starry provenance make an impression. As Tom, who is something of a doormat, albeit one with a sharp tongue, Rhett Owen spars nicely with Sean; he also transforms into an amusingly irritating specimen of male sensitivity under Laura's tutelage. Katie Blake has an easy way with Rabe's admittedly accurate-sounding dialogue as Leah, a one-night stand of Sean's whose accidental death triggers various hysterical reactions. Eddie Liu underplays skillfully as a door-to-door missionary who takes Sean's measure. ("Just because I believe in something doesn't make me stupid.") And Maryam Hassouni has a solid comic cameo as another pickup whose commanding manner and detailed demands are at odds with her desire to be romantically manhandled. The director, Jay Stull, has handled his inexperienced cast well.

As the program notes, this is a good example of "DIY theatre," put together by a bunch of young people looking to get noticed. Such productions aren't usually known for their design values, but it is worth noting that the set, by Greg Kozatek and George Hoffman -- a kind of forced-perspective view of a railroad flat, backed by tenement exteriors and a neon sign -- is unusually elaborate. It's also worth noting that the costumes, by Cat Hunt and Scott Stevenson, are wickedly accurate takes on what young people wear these days when hunting for a bed partner. The lighting, by Nick Houfek, and sound, by Slats Toole, are also solidly professional.

It's not possible to recommend The Future is Not What it Was; the script is too long and aimless. But casting directors should make a beeline to Walkerspace; there are some highly employable young people on stage there right now.--David Barbour

(22 January 2013)

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