By Eric J. Grimm
The plagues of modern playwriting conventions leave few stones unturned when it comes to well known national tragedies. The 9/11 play is a particularly tedious subgenre that tries to bestow importance on people, real or imagined, who had some connection to the terrorist attacks. Beau Willimon’s characters in the new play Breathing Time are his own creations and though his blank canvas afforded him endless possibilities to give an interesting perspective of that major moment in American history, he chose to tell the story of two odious white male bankers who worked high up in one of the towers of the World Trade Center. The choice is uninspired and Willimon’s dialogue is fraught with clichés and his abundant use of foreshadowing is often comical.
In the first scene, number cruncher Mike (Lee Dolson) and creative trader Jack (Craig Wesley Divino) manage to reveal much of their life stories and insecurities in the roughly forty-five minutes leading up to the first plane’s collision. Willimon’s dialogue attempts to both tip off the audience and throw them off the scent. Mike talks at length about his love of planes. Jack bemoans the fact that he has to work in the Financial District when he would rather be in Midtown. Mike hums The Beatles’ “Yesterday” before singing aloud, “There’s a shadow hanging over me.” Of course, the characters make reference to being on the 95th floor. I’m surprised that neither of them ever says, “What a perfectly normal day. Nothing bad could possibly happen.”
The overbearing foreshadowing is complemented by achingly familiar dialogue from the cardboard characters. Jack is a misogynist of the Mamet/LaBute variety, a fact made painfully obvious by his nauseating assessment of his attractive assistant Karen (Whitney Conkling). Willimon, however, doesn’t want us to be too repulsed. Jack has the same kind of family demons so many unlikable characters have: teen mom sister, drug addicted veteran father, and so on.
The cast mostly struggles to move beyond their flatly written characters. Lee Dolson has Mike’s milquetoast, suburban father act down, but he stumbles over much of his dialogue, breaking the rhythm of the show. Molly Thomas, playing Mike’s wife Julie, is tasked with playing a type-A housewife who can’t quite grieve but Thomas mostly plays Julie stiff-lipped with few flashes of her conflicted nature. Shannon Marie Sullivan doesn’t disgrace herself as Jack’s sister Denise, Willimon’s most ludicrous creation: a free-spirited stripper who has memorized the placement of every painting at the Museum of Modern Art. Somehow Sullivan makes it slightly believable as Denise expresses dismay over upcoming renovations to the museum. Craig Wesley Divino is the most comfortable, rattling off sleaze ball Jack’s dialogue with ease. Divino’s performance is perfectly serviceable, suggesting that he would likely be at home in one of the office-set plays that Willimon is ripping off.
With Breathing Time, Beau Willimon wants to give weight to the otherwise meaningless connections that tie the characters together. Mike and Jack are both hungry for success even if they have different approaches to attaining it. Julie and Denise both struggle to come to terms with loss while raising their children in a cruel world. These characters and their motivations are all tired playwriting conventions under the guise of socially relevant theater. Seeing these shopworn dramatic scenes play out against the backdrop of 9/11 doesn’t offer catharsis so much as it does a glimpse into Willimon’s underactive imagination.
Breathing Time is playing at the IATI Theater (64 E. 4th St. New York, NY, (212)505-6757) from March 21 to April 13th.