Review by Cathy Hammer
It’s New Years Eve and Sean has returned from New York City to Campbell, California to celebrate with his closest friends from high school. The gathering is doubling as a launch party for Tom’s new app with an appropriately stupid name and an outrageous evaluation of over a billion dollars. Aiding Tom at very turn is Kat, who walked away from Google’s misogynistic marketing department to explore her options including the possibility of joining Tom’s company. Also along for the ride is Matt, a happy-go-lucky weed dealer with a day job at a pizzeria. Once the one they all turned to for advice and encouragement, Sean has made a series of poor choices which have put him in a depression he is trying desperately to conceal. Instead of partying with the models Tom has hired to entertain his guests, Sean is hanging out in the finished basement consuming way too much of Tom’s Macallan 21. The combination of alcohol and jealousy over Tom’s success with a product of questionable merit chips away at whatever is left of Sean’s sense of self. He confesses to Matty, whom he sees as the least threatening of his circle, that he’s lost his job and generally made a mess of his life. Fearful that his best days are far behind him at the tender age of 26, Sean has come home hoping to find a way to start over without being perceived as a failure.
Named for the game in which players pretend that touching the ground will kill them, The Floor is Lava covers several revealing hours during which these four friends must carefully navigate where they tread. Like a 20-something Sorkin, Alex Riad has written a serious story of struggle for identity, connection, and success using crackling humor and genuine feeling. The dialogue is simultaneously realistic and punny. Riad uses clever shorthand to effectively and economically fill out the stories from critical background information about the classmates to glimpses into the over-the-top party raging off-stage. Some familiarity with the high-tech world will amplify the jokes, both verbal and visual. The ramifications of shifts in pecking order he explores are familiar to anyone and while he has chosen the Silicon Valley as his setting, the dynamics illustrated are universal. The script does have some weaknesses. The protagonist comes across as profoundly unsympathetic for much of the time and the reasons the rest looked up to him are explained rather than experienced. And at an hour and 45 minutes, the road to resolution is a little long, though the ultimate destination is very satisfying.
Director Glory Kadigan’s vision for the material has been given a boost by the actual basement setting of La MaMa’s Downstairs Theater complete with exposed brick walls, metal staircase and utilitarian doors. The set by designer Izzy Fields rounds out the look with well-loved furniture which practically reeks of Cheeto fumes. The homey space suits the deeply intimate conversations as well as the more lighthearted reflections on bygone days. Kudos to composer and sound designer Jacob Subotnick for his scene-setting selections and to prop designer Lytza R. Colon for Tom’s amusing array of treasures. There is even an attempt by the team to set an initial mood with party decorations and flashing colored lights in the lobby.
The actors are uniformly excellent. John DiMino is by turns glib and shattered as Sean. He appears off kilter from the moment of his first entrance, with the underlying causes performed as a slow reveal. Multidisciplinary artist John Gutierrez brings pure bouncing joy and honesty to the role of Matt. As the sole woman in the group, Kailah S. King successfully balances strength and mothering instinct in Kat’s inflection and physicality. Rounding out the cast is Andrew Goebel as Tom, whose soft body and ungainly limbs support his interpretation of a once awkward high schooler who understands the value of a lucky break.
The Floor is Lava explores societal pressures and their consequences through a lens of wit and affection resulting in a thoroughly entertaining and engaging production. The characters may be millennials whose every move is amplified by social media, but their predicaments are timeless. It plays through May 19 at La Mama Downstairs.
The Floor is Lava — Off-Broadway at La MaMa The Downstairs (66 East 4th Street in Manhattan). Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8PM; Sunday at 5PM. Runtime is 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $25 General Admission, $20 Student/Senior and available at www.lamama.org or call 212-352-3101, Limited run ends May 19.
Photos by: Carlos Cardona