“The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Daniel Libman’s new play ingeniously twists Hamlet’s subterfuge to a new end. Instead of staging a play to stir a king’s guilty conscience over a fratricide, uptight lawyer Lori (Margot White) writes and anonymously produces one that dramatizes a plan of her own, all to avoid revealing it directly.
Lori learns a hard lesson about the costs of manipulating others in the crisply paced and superbly acted Intermission, on stage through May 24 at Theatre Row’s Clurman Theatre. Along the way Libman uses his story to explore two much-talked-of themes related to homosexuality. First is the voyeuristic appeal of lesbian sex for straight men, which Lori condemns in a manner that before we’re clued in seems awkwardly forceful. The second, and more important to the structure of the play, is what appears to some theatergoers (including this writer and some of his acquaintances) as a far-out-of-proportion presence of gay themes and characters in live theater. As Lori’s husband Blake (Michael Brusasco) complains about this we sense Libman winking at us as if to say, Do you see what I’m doing here?
What he’s doing is creating both a compelling (if highly unlikely) fiction and a metafiction about gay themes and theater itself. He sets the action entirely in the lobby of a small theater where a play supposedly handed anonymously to the producers is being staged. Lori has dragged Blake, who’s not a huge theater fan, and as they banter and bicker before the show Lori is inordinately nervous that her friend Gabe (Carol Todd) and Gabe’s guest or date haven’t arrived yet.
While Lori’s odd behavior is explained later, the opening scene in which we get to know her and Blake rang false to me in a different way, because these two didn’t read as a married couple, and it was a shock when the script revealed the fact; I’d thought they were friends or perhaps relatives. Even given the bizarre circumstances that we come to understand later, a couple together for 11 years should behave more familiarly – about what each does for a living, for example – even if antagonistically.
One of the play’s payoffs is a revelation of their real feelings for each other, brilliantly evoked at the end. That disparity is the one significant flaw I found in Intermission. Otherwise its aim is true, even more effectively so because its plot isn’t very believable, part of its metafictional side. Libman’s works have had more than 50 productions and he has mastered not only clear, naturalistic dialogue but the brave art of following a story through to the scenes and conversations that most writers would stop short of tackling. To make a TV analogy, exploring actions’ consequences is one of the things that made Breaking Bad such an unusual and groundbreaking show. On a smaller and more intimate scale, this play does the same.
Among the fine elements of the production are two revelations of greater character depth than we’d previously perceived. One is Brusasco’s portrayal of Blake’s climactic breakdown when he learns the truth. The other comes courtesy of the fourth character, Tina (Jessica Griffin), a seemingly ditzy theater neophyte. Tina’s reaction upon learning of the part she was expected to play in the lobby drama is just one of the many opportunities the script gives Griffin to display her huge gift for both comedy and drama.
As for Lori, in this talky play it’s her silences that carry the most weight. While White’s is an effective performance throughout, the sharpest impression it made on me, perhaps because it came near the end, was of Lori’s inability to answer her lovers’ desperate questions about how she feels. Rarely have I experienced wordless communication so compelling on stage.
Generous kudos must go to director Wayne Maugans for managing the perfectly paced plot revelations while keeping the dialogue moving with precise speed. The result of the sharp staging and well-honed performances is a funny, anxious, edgy, and very satisfying evening of theater. With no intermission, and none needed.
Voyage Theater Company‘s Intermission is at Theatre Row through May 24.