By Ron Fassler . . .
Upon entering the Linda Gross Theater for the Atlantic Theater’s production of Grace Garner’s new play, I’m Revolting, you are met by a strikingly realistic set that depicts a waiting room in a doctor’s office. All the chairs are facing out in a line and, after a time, a certain dread creeps in even before the play begins. What are the patients here for and are we about to become flies on the wall while they deal with potentially terrible news? It’s intermissionless, so there’s no escape. Help!
Well, fear not. A great deal of the play is very funny (after all, laughter is the best medicine). Everyone can relate to dealing with the worst of times by using humor to stave feelings of helplessness and fear, which is what Garner’s grab bag of assorted types do here. Ranging in age and type from a Black female teenager to a white seventy-year-old male retiree, director Knud Adams does a fine job of juggling a number of beach balls in the air without dropping any or deflating them. A slice-of-life play with no plot, it’s simply one long day at a skin cancer clinic, something akin to Grand Hotel with its ironic claim that “people come, people go, nothing ever happens.”
The nine characters include Denise, the head oncologist and surgeon (Patrice Johnson Chevannes); her baby-faced intern Jonathan (Bartley Booz); Reggie (Alicia Pilgrim), a nineteen-year-old with a rare skin cancer whose older sister Anna (Gabby Beans), in spite of not really wanting to be there, must serve as her proxy; Jordan and Liane (Glenn Fitzgerald and Emily Cass McDonnell), a couple whose marital issues prove an obstacle towards dealing with a rough diagnosis; a mother and son, Denise and Toby (Laura Esterman and Patrick Vaill), seemingly the least equipped to deal with reality; and, finally, Clyde (Peter Gerety), an old soul in an old body with the most personal and extensive experience with cancer.
Throughout, I was reminded of Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box, a play that won the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for its frankness and teary-eyed depiction of a group of terminal cancer patients, back in 1977. That was a long time ago, but I recall being unmoved by what I considered a maudlin quality to that original production. There’s no question most people were deeply affected by it, but I prefer what Garner has done here with a similar set-up, a more refreshing take on a serious subject. That’s not to say it’s flippant, but it feels real in the way people cope in the moment when things are not in their control.
Gabby Beans, nominated this past season for a Best Actress Tony for her Sabina in the Lincoln Center revival of The Skin of Our Teeth, is a wonder as Anna, older sister to Reggie. An analyst with an edge, one can only imagine how she practices her trade based on her interactions with the waiting room patients and the doctors. You can’t take your eyes off Beans, whether she’s on a tirade, or just sitting and listening. She’s a major player met with equal intensity by Alicia Pilgrim’s Reggie. From her very first line, you realize you’re in the presence of someone who knows who she is in the present moment, even if she’s completely unsure of her future. Somewhat new to the professional theater I, for one, only expect great things from her.
Then there’s a seasoned pro like the great Peter Gerety, one of the finest stage actors of his generation. The veteran of more than 125 roles at Trinity Rep in Providence, Rhode Island, for decades he was a private treasure; but, more recently, has become ubiquitous in every medium. He does not disappoint as Clyde, the person in the play with the most empathy, though disguised by a gruff exterior. Though that may sound cliché, in the hands of an actor of Gerety’s skill there’s nothing to worry about.
It was a pleasure to see Laura Esterman back on stage, whose credits go back to a 1969 Lincoln Center revival of The Time of Your Life, which I saw as a teenager. Her immersion into the role of Paula was complete—a mother you would never want for your own. Patrick Vaill, so good as Jud Fry in the recent Tony Award winning revival of Oklahoma!, lent solid support in a quiet and heartfelt performance. I also felt that as the young intern—in many ways the play’s most difficult role—Bartley Booz was the perfect mixture of innocence and arrogance. In his scene with Patrice Johnson Chevannes (a last-minute add-in during the show’s preview period), the pair shared a lovely balance, aided by some of Garner’s best writing. As the married couple, Glenn Fitzgerald and Emily Cass McDonnell, are saddled with insufficiently developed characters. Their mysterious behaviors go unanswered and unresolved.
For those looking for a deeper story and more well-rooted histories of its characters, this play might not provide a sufficient meal. Yet, for those hungry for a taste of inspired acting and dialogue that never flags, I’m Revolting may well be worth the challenge.
I’m Revolting. Through October 16 at the Atlantic Theater’s Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street, between Eight and Ninth Avenues). www.atlantictheater.org
Photos: Ahron R. Foster