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Theatre in Review: Chasing the River (Chain Theatre)/The Commons (59E59)

Top: Christina Elise Perry. Photo: Matt Well. Bottom: Ben Katz, Olivia Khoshatefeh. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Chasing the River is a family drama that plays like crime fiction. Kat, a thirtyish steak house waitress living in Philadelphia, returns, for the first time in years, to the small Pennsylvania town where she grew up. It is not a sentimental journey: She is there to see to the disposal of the family house, which, most recently, was occupied by her deceased Aunt Addie. On arrival, Kat meets up with Sam, owner of the local hardware store and her high school boyfriend; there's still a certain spark between them, but Kat is already in a barely suppressed state of agitation.

Why? In a brief flashback, we see Nate, Kat's father, bucking up the teenage Kat when she is bullied at school. (As a freshman, she made the varsity basketball team, which the older girls didn't care for at all.) They appear to be unusually close for a father and daughter; indeed, Nate seems to be an unusually supportive father, urging Kat on to greater achievements.

Soon, the penny -- really, a bank's worth of them -- drops: Nate is dead. Kat has done prison time and is trying to put her life back together. She won't have anything to do with her mother, Margaret, who lives nearby and is eager to see her. And why, as we see in another flashback, when Kat was ready to leave for college -- from which, strangely, she didn't graduate -- did Addie give her a large wad of cash and tell her to keep it secret?

Jumping between past and present, playwright Jean Dobie Giebel keeps us on the hook as the remarkably ugly details of Kat's family history -- including alcoholism, spousal abuse, and much worse -- come tumbling out. Further straining Kat's nerves are a fraught encounter with the ulterior, absolution-seeking Margaret, and the ongoing presence of Sam, whose ardor burns bright but whose personal life is, as they say, complicated. Meanwhile, we are left guessing what happened on the night that altered Kat's life forever.

There's a lot going in Chasing the River, arguably too much for ninety minutes, and certain aspects of the story could dearly use fleshing out. For example, the brief glimpses of the past on offer don't always give a clear picture of the family's pathology and how it proliferated. (One particularly grisly incident, involving a disease from which Kat suffered, surely would have raised the alarm, even if it happened twenty years ago in a one-horse town.) When Giebel finally produces Beth, Kat's younger sister, whom nobody has seen in years, she can't quite explain how a runaway preadolescent has managed to mature into a fairly thriving adult -- albeit one with denial issues. As Kat says, disbelievingly, "You were only twelve."

But there's no denying that Chasing the River maintains a page-turning hold on one's attention, rather like the novels of Gillian Flynn or Jessica Knoll's Luckiest Girl Alive; even when one is busy questioning it, the urge to find out the truth proves irresistible. And, as it becomes poignantly clear that no one was there for Kat, her terrible, life-changing decision takes on a certain awful inevitability. It helps enormously that she is played by Christina Elise Perry, who combines striking looks with a spiky, dismissive manner that strongly hints at a host of darker, more troubling emotions. The actress has a kind of stillness that grounds the roiling action, making it easy to care about what happens to Kat.

The rest of Ella Jane New's production is solid without fully papering over the play's weaknesses. David Rey has an appealing aging-puppy-dog quality as Sam, and he has real chemistry with Perry, but he sometimes paces about too much to indicate emotional stress. David Wenzel's Nate -- a character who could have used more dimension -- is both monstrous and pathetic. Sara Thigpen is fine as Addie, who is really just a plot device, although she has a good bit with Nate that reveals that the family sickness extends across more than one generation. Robyne Parrish makes a hair-raising appearance as Margaret, Kat's mother, huggy one minute and hurling devastating zingers the next. Carolyn Orlando does a good job of making Beth, with her hazy backstory, into a believable figure. Even so, the director sometimes has trouble managing the time-traveling action, which cuts between past and present at a sometimes-furious pace. The comings and goings of the cast occasionally threaten to cause an onstage traffic jam.

Raye Levine Spielberg's simple front-porch setting works well for this intimate staging. Michael Abrams' lighting capably delineates different time frames. Greg Russ' sound design, which includes a cacophony of voices inside Kat's head, is solidly done. The production doesn't use a costume designer, which is, I think, a mistake.

Chasing the River -- a poker term favored by Addie -- would benefit from giving its characters more breathing space, but it isn't dull, and Kat is a compelling figure. I'm betting you'll be rooting for her.

At least Kat has possession of her family home, even if it is a house of horrors. The characters of The Commons are forced to live in close quarters in a large-ish New York apartment, an arrangement that provides plenty of opportunities for grating rivalries and self-serving displays of thwarted virtue. Many of these unfold during the monthly group meeting of the roommates: Robyn, a sculptor who is slipping into middle age unburdened by success, is positively chapfallen at the presence of dried tomato sauce on the stovetop, causing a cascade of regrets and promises from the others. The rather younger Janira drips with grievance as she describes making fresh bread for the house, only to find it reduced to crumbs before it has cooled off; the bread was for them to enjoy together -- and, anyway, why doesn't anyone do something nice for her?

Many of these crimes are attributable to Cliff, a web designer from California, who has honed passive aggression to an art, acting selfishly and then, when caught out, offering lengthy, self-lacerating apologies, all of which are quickly forgotten. His aggressively sensitive manner often has a nails-on-the-blackboard effect on everyone else. In a class by herself is Dee, who is mired in a dissertation that, it seems clear, will never be written. (It has something to do with Monteverdi and madrigals, although, in a midstream fit of despair, she shifts to an even more incomprehensible topic involving "16th century theories about emotional arousal in many different contexts including music." I can hardly wait to read it.)

The action of The Commons, such as it is, involves everyone riding everyone else's nerves, forming and dissolving an endlessly shifting series of alliances, and engaging in sub-rosa feuds. A wild card of sorts is introduced when Cliff, against the wishes of the group, brings in Anna, his sometime girlfriend, for a stay of several weeks. This cues lengthy and noisy sex sessions that keep Dee and Janira up at night; it also sets up yet another realignment when Anna and Dee bond, leaving Cliff feeling both abandoned and emotionally exposed. (Fair is fair; when Dee has a near-nervous breakdown over the fate of her dissertation, her offstage sobs provoke plenty of agita in the others.)

The Commons certainly has its droll moments. These include a skirmish over a Marie Kondo-inspired attempt at decluttering the apartment, Dee's conniption fit when Cliff alludes to her having family money, and a wave of mass horror unleashed at the thought that Anna might be "exploring" libertarianism. It also has its lesser moments: Why, in plays about groups of friends and acquaintances, does everyone inevitably burst into an awkward dance to pop music?

If The Commons feels derivative, at least it reflects the influence of some of our newer playwrights. The scenes of hair-splitting infighting recall Miles for Mary and other works by the Mad Ones, while the dialogue's on-the-fly quality recalls some of the plays of Annie Baker and Anne Washburn. That the playwright, Lily Akerman, isn't on their level may not be here or there; the work is good enough to make one interested in hearing from her again. Still, I hope that this kind of roommate micro-comedy -- another recent example of which is Sarah Einspanier's currently running House Plant -- doesn't become its own genre.

Emma Miller directs these neurotic games with a good eye for detail, and the cast is clearly on the playwright's wavelength. Ben Newman's overbearing Robyn is oddly touching, even when insisting that apartment-sharing with acquaintances is superior to cohabitation or marriage -- an option he will probably never get the chance to exercise. Olivia Khoshatefeh has a knack for high comedy as Janira, whose obsessive nature and ever-shifting moods reach their peak in an amusingly maudlin state of mourning over the fate of a mouse that has invaded the apartment. Julia Greer captures Dee's skill at turning the smallest infraction into a federal case. Ben Katz, perpetually slack-jawed with amazement and forever defending his actions as part of his "ethos," is especially amusing as Cliff. As Anna, who does what she wants without apology, Olivia Abiassi breezes through this nest of basket cases, adding some distinctive comic bits of her own.

The rest of the production, in 59E59's tiny Theater C, is perfectly solid. Emmie Finckel's set, dominated by walls of storage units, evokes the group-living situation, and Dara Affholter's costumes are loaded with character-defining touches. The lighting designer, Victoria Bain, makes good use of a single overhead color-changing LED automated light to create a variety of effects. Caroline Eng's sound design makes effective use of various musical selections. (At the performance I attended, one's concentration was disturbed by a series of persistent offstage noises; whatever this was about, I hope it has been addressed.)

A sometimes-engaging piece in the current style, which allows itself to go on too long at an hour and forty minutes, The Commons is the work of a newish company known as The Hearth. Whatever is weak or strong about this production, I have a feeling we'll be hearing from them again. -- David Barbour

(13 February 2020)

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