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Theatre in Review: I'm Revolting (Atlantic Theater Company)

Laura Esterman, Patrick Vaill, Glenn Fitzgerald, Emily Cass McDonnell, Peter Gerety, Alicia Pilgrim. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

The title certainly gives one pause, and the setting, a skin cancer clinic in Manhattan, hardly seems promising. One can be entirely forgiven for slumping in one's seat at the Atlantic, steeling one's nerves for an evening likely to be grotesque, maudlin, or both. But don't count out playwright Gracie Gardner, who spins these distinctly unpromising materials into theatrical gold. I'm Revolting, which tracks a day's worth of comings and goings in the clinic's waiting room, offers as complete a vision of the human comedy as we have seen in months. It's a remarkable feat, instantly announcing the playwright as an exciting new voice.

A playwright of the Annie Baker school, Gardner finds drama in the tiniest interactions, creating a series of mini-conflicts that lay bare a universe of sorrows mingled with sharp-eyed comedy. All these elements are there in the tussle between a young biopsy patient and her sister, the latter torn between offering support and getting back to her Wall Street job ASAP. They're heartbreakingly evident in the unraveling marriage of a woman suffering from advanced facial scarring and her aggrieved, in-denial husband. And they are riotously on display in the case of a young man with melanoma and his aggressively holistic mother, spouting reams of New Age nonsense and advancing the unhelpful proposition that her son's thoughts are killing him.

Each of these episodes is one element among many in Gardner's group portrait, a life study of humans caught at a frighteningly vulnerable moment. Skin cancer affects, in the most profound way, each character's sense of self, raising questions of attractiveness and, in many cases, mortality. In the world of the play, the immediate news is sometimes hopeful, but the overall prospects are best not dwelled upon. This is a compassionate, if ruthlessly observant, comic drama about what it takes to get through a single difficult day, knowing that something much worse may be just around the corner.

The production at the Atlantic testifies to the astonishing pool of character actors available in New York. Gabby Beans is equally amusing and alarming as that financier, tottering around on towering high heels, barking orders into her Bluetooth phone, and slipping into hostile negotiation poses at a moment's notice. She also displays a tender side when trying, unsuccessfully, to assuage Alicia Pilgrim as her younger sibling, stunned at the injustice of her diagnosis. (In a production where a certain low-ball delivery is the prevailing style, Pilgrim could speak up more and enunciate more clearly.) Emily Cass McDonnell has a doll-like vulnerability as the worst-off patient, until she reveals the reason that explains, if not excuses, her husband's hostility; Glenn Fitzgerald unlocks the confusion and fear of impotence in this character's casually cruel behavior. Patrick Vaill's bland, urbane exterior barely conceals many disappointments; as his mother, Laura Esterman adds, hilariously, to her extensive gallery of eccentrics, producing a set of Hindu singing bowls and staging an impromptu healing ceremony while the others look on, nonplussed. Offering the sharpest criticism of such activities is Peter Gerety as a veteran patient who has seen it all and takes it in comic stride. On the treatment side, Patrice Johnson Chevannes presides, authoritatively, as the doctor in charge, handing out bad news in calm, measured tones and quietly urging her patients not to look too far ahead. But she leaves her most powerful impression in an eleventh-hour supervisory chat with tyro doctor Bartley Booz, delivering a gut-punch revelation that, in a single stroke, significantly mars his career prospects and dramatically reshapes one patient's fate.

The director, Knud Adams, orchestrates his actors with masterly precision, switching from laughter to loss with the lightest of touches. He also gets extremely apt work from his design team. Marsha Ginsberg's mirrored set, with its seemingly unfathomable depths, hints strongly at the characters' precarious states; it could be a nightmare to light, but Kate McGee approaches it inventively, using soft-light panels seen more typically in film and television. Enver Chakartash's costumes are unobtrusive, but detailed, character studies. Bray Poor's minimal sound design is well-executed.

Despite the setting and subject matter, there's nothing clinical or detached about I'm Revolting. Indeed, it serves as a potent metaphor for the uncertainty in which we all dwell all the time, our fortunes subject to devastating alteration at a moment's notice. Gardner has an unsentimental appreciation for her characters' reversals; how one faces them, the play seems to say, is everything. To simply put one foot in front of the other is to exist in a state of grace. --David Barbour


(5 October 2022)

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