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Theater Review (NYC): White Hot by Tommy Smith

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This taut, nervous drama has a darkness about it, both figuratively, in its twisted-love-triangle story, and literally in its dimly lit interior scenes. On a dim stage with minimal sets, we meet meek, pregnant Lil (Janice Amaya), her hyper-sexed, drug-abusing sister known only as Sis (Jamie Bock), and her on-edge husband Bri (Bradley Anderson). Even their clipped, one-syllable names contribute to the compact intensity of this jittery, anxiously intellectual play.

At first it seems Sis is the center of the action. Logorrheic, hyperactive, sexy and almost comically kinky, Sis comes across as a polar opposite to quiet, mousy Lil. (The contrast is further emphasized by Amaya’s and Bock’s ethnically differing appearances, which makes it a bit of a shock to learn, several minutes into the opening scene, that they’re related. I have no problem with race- or color-blind casting – after all, theater is all about suspension of disbelief. Still, I can’t help thinking of the even stronger momentary setback I would have felt had understudy Mari Yamamoto taken one of the roles!)

In spite of Sis’s torrent of language and Lil’s quietness, the sisters turn out to share a highly introspective bent. It’s just that Sis says everything that comes to mind, while Lil retreats into dreaminess. When Lil and her husband Bri clash on a park bench – her mental disturbance growing more obvious, his patience wearing thin – the quieter sister takes up her position as the emotional focus of the story. Though she has declared to Sis her love for the traditional role of the “stroller mom,” knitting cute hats, shopping organic and buying baby magazines, we learn that Lil has actually been refusing to leave her house. Yet she’s perfectly willing to consider Sis’s recommendation that she look for some kind of life-force fix outside her marriage.

 


 

Whether or not it’s fair to say he’s driven to it, Bri gets dangerously close to Sis. Under the circumstances, it’s no surprise that Lil should be driven to despair. But what’s startling about her is that she doesn’t act desperate. She’s mostly peaceful, even thankful to those who have cared for her. In a weird scene with a reticent, mysterious “back specialist” named Grig (Sean McIntyre), Lil chatters on, becoming like talkative Sis from the opening scene while he plays the quiet one of few words. “I’m not very optimistic about the future,” she tells the stranger. “But I have a baby now, a baby on the way so I have to buck up and get happy about everything. Did you see I was pregnant?…We’re very happy.” But who’s “we?” She and Bri? Or just she and her unborn child? And do we believe her? In Amaya’s carefully nuanced performance, nothing’s obvious; it doesn’t feel like she’s mouthing brave words in defiance of her real feelings, but neither can we take what she says at face value.

Director Courtney Ulrich extracts remarkable performances all around. Bock’s Sis is a whirlwind of nervous energy, a walking exaggeration and distillation of the terrible energy we all sometimes feel, and distressingly appealing withal. Anderson’s Bri is a subtler creature, a thoughtful being who finds himself trapped in a gyre of heedless feminine emotion. And Amaya’s Lil, the ethereal eye of the hurricane, is one of the most striking characters you’re likely to see on stage this season. Don’t miss White Hot, now at The Flea through May 26.

Photos by Hunter Canning

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.