Theater Ninjas, your friend- ly nomadic theater company, has landed in the West 78th Street Studios with a comedy named [sic] by Melissa James Gibson, a play that might accurately be subtitled, "the ridiculous quest for clarity."
Three thirty-something singles live in closet-sized apartments across the hall from one another. They have, by virtue of their enforced proximity, become friends of a sort. They can hear each other through the vents and walls. They know uncomfortable truths about each other, which have a cruel tendency to slip out in the most hurtful and humiliating ways. They talk – a lot. They make grand attempts at connecting and defining their feelings, convinced that, if they only speak fast enough and long enough, their point will be clearly made. In fact, their language muddles their ideas, pushes people away, and tends to be hurtful and dumbfounding when all they meant to say was, "I love you," or "thank you," or, "bless you."
Their cramped lives are somehow made bearable by living delusional dreams. Their twenties are done and they have achieved exactly nothing. Theo is played by Ryan Lucas with an idiot's grin that assumes a delightful but rather panicked life-is-A-OK demeanor. He is a composer who cannot write a note – even for a theme song to a local carnival ride. Babette is played by Rachel Lee Kolis with a frantic, frightened angst that pushes Theo away with stunning brutality. She defines herself as a novelist, but is struggling to get past paragraph one in a novel that suggests temper tantrums are the genesis of all wars. And Frank, a sweet, shy gay man played with comic genius by Gabriel Riazi, is a loner who wants to be an auctioneer because he wants his words to "mean something."
It is Generation X inarticulately struggling to find value in a comically absurd existence.
All in all, one gets the sense that we're watching a Warner Bros. cartoon of Wile E. Coyote, Elmer Fudd and a contemporary Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle — all losers, all convinced of their genius, all crashing to earth in a leaky balloon.
But this play is funny. Very funny. In spite of the many clouds of grey hanging over the proceedings, the three actors work together with clockwork timing, with an energy reminiscent of being shot out of a cannon, and notably in control of their work. Their comedy is self-aware. They understand what the play is about.
Rachel Lee Kolis (Babette) is a fascinatingly intelligent actress who can fly from mood to mood in a flash and never hit a false note. She is unafraid of her own silliness, sexuality, and deep grief that seems to undulate beneath the surface. She's someone to watch. Ryan Lucas as Theo drives the play like a ringmaster. He keeps buoying up the other two with an unvanquished effort to see light at the end of the tunnel. Gabrial Riaze as Frank is (frankly) hysterical – especially in a scene when he tries to keep up with a Texas cow auctioneer on a cassette tape. It is a moment of merry discovery. It doesn't come off as a theatrical bit, but rather lovingly Chaplinesque – a poor schmuck trying to keep up with gibberish as if his life depended on it.
Special mention must be made to the director, Pandora Robertson. The play cannot read well. It can only be understood in performance, through the behavior and machinations of the actors in brutal eye contact. Ms. Robinson has smashed these three actors together like a nuclear explosion – giving life to a play that might make you want to shoot yourself otherwise. The variety and imaginative use of the small, makeshift theater space is admirable.
They also serve wine, which never fails to make a night at the theater just a smidge better.
Through March 15, Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m. | 78th Street Studios | 1300 West 78th St. | 440-503-5506 | theaterninjas.com