Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Thicker than Water by Red Herring Productions

“The bias of the father runs on through the son
And leaves him bothered and bewildered”
-Lou Reed, “Endless Cycle”

“To be torched is not ironic, but it hurts
It hurt her flesh. It hurts me to think about it.
And not precious I am to think about it, to give it time”
-Dorothea Lasky, “I Hate Irony”

Red Herring continues their hot streak with the original play Thicker Than Water, created using an adaptation of the Mike Leigh method of building a story up using a combination of improvisation and what each person brings to the table. I have a couple quibbles but I think anyone interested in theater in this town should make haste and go see this because it’s original work like we don’t get enough of, it’s a serious piece grappling with life which we don’t get enough of, and it’s some of the finest acting I’ve seen this year – on par with Tony Shaloub in Act One or Adrian Lester in Red Velvet to say nothing of Ian Short in Leaving the Atocha Station or Kayla Jackmon in How We Got On – of which we can never have too much.  I’m going to try to avoid “plot spoilers” for whatever that means for this kind of work but I don’t think I’ll completely succeed.  So I’m leading off with the recommendation that you go see this while it runs for another week.

It starts with a knock on the door and a son (Nick Lingnofski) come home to visit his dying father (Michael Herring) and finally settle some long-untalked-about scores.  The next 70 or so minutes are a white knuckle pas de deux, circling like fighters  with a shabby living room for a ring and a handful of props that, even before they’re reacted to or with, seem weighted with an uncanny gravity. The stakes are laid out early, you know everything’s going to be used before this is over, and the clock is running in real time. 

Lingnofski’s character is a Vietnam vet and writer of some success, still single, who is also a committed atheist, currently living in New York. His father is a WWII veteran who has committed to a Christian faith, lost his second wife and has a small child he’s going to leave behind in (according to his doctor’s estimates) four or five months. In a longish one-act there’s an amazing amount of density of detail expressed and retained by the audience because it’s all used – from the wife/mother leaving the family to become a Nun to the second wife dying in childbirth creating a second round of single parenthood for someone at an age where that’s an even greater source of stress. That this much detail is put across without feeling shoehorned in is a testament to both the acting and the writing, and the fact that both points of view are given dignity and close to equal weight is a marvel, especially for something that’s built out of improvisation. 

However, my biggest gripe with the piece is that the level of specificity makes the handful of gaps really apparent. The example that stood out the most to me (here there be the spoilers discussed above): there’s discussion that the father character didn't get treatment the first time he got his cancer diagnosis but also discussion about how horrible his treatments were, leading us to surmise he tried to get treatment this time but long enough ago for his hair to have grown back. For the son character to not needle him about that or at least badger him for specifics seemed contrary to the way the character acted both before and after. Moments like this feel like the piece backs off from more dramatic complications to keep restating the basic question, hammering the struggle home. And the struggle - about how we find grace and how we betray ourselves and the people we love and what we tell ourselves to get through the day - is important and is well-stated but this little falling short keeps the piece very good instead of great The other, smaller, gripe with the material is that it follows Chekhov's maxim a little too closely, every single thing that appears is used, making it seem a little less surprising than it might be with a little misdirection.

That said, the only reason I noticed those failings was because of how strong everything else is. Nick Lingnofski owns a kind of simmering melancholy that you never know at any moment will bubble over into rage or uproarious laughter, running under and through a surfeit of charm, better than any actor working and this might be the best showcase for it I've yet seen. Michael Herring who I hadn't seen act in many years - yes, I regrettably missed Krapp's Last Tape - is pitch perfect, there isn't a motion or a gesture or a facial expression wasted. And beyond the masterclass in acting, everything else is spot on. John Dranshack's direction is perfectly taut, there's enough space to breathe and to let the beats land but he never lets the play get slack. Rich Stadler's set grounds the play in the appropriate time but isn't full of underlining. And Topher Dick's lighting with Dave Wallingford's sound are almost invisible but perfectly evocative. 

All told, a show I was very, very glad I saw.  

Runs Thursday-Sunday through August 16th at 8:00pm. Tickets available at 614-723-9116 or Pay What You Want at the door. 


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