By Eric J. Grimm
In act one of The Shape of Something Squashed, Tom Noonan’s new play showing at his East Village film and theater cooperative, The Paradise Factory, a character expresses her distaste for drawing room comedies with mistaken identity as a plot point as she mistakes another character for a limo driver. It is one of the many self-reflexive jabs in the script that seem to be there to comfort the audience, perhaps saying, “It’s okay if you don’t like what’s going on. We’re totally self-aware here.” Those bits of self-deprecation were comforting. The Shape of Something Squashed is often too workmanlike in its interpretation of backstage drama, but the way it deals with certain clichés is often compelling enough to make the whole affair worthwhile.
Noonan’s play banks on its familiarity, proudly showing off its stock characters in its intimate black box setting. Noonan plays Douglas Whymper, a tragically tall struggling actor from the Bronx who has been dispatched as a last minute stand-in for a famous actor at a reading for a new play. Whymper is good-natured in his misery. The highlight of his career was his musical one-man show about Friedrich Nietzsche. Otherwise, he’s been stuck playing the killer on television shows, a nod to Noonan’s own career. Hermoine (Monique Vukovic) and Sedge (Grant James Varjas), the vicious playwrights who own the theater where the action takes place, spend much of the running time refusing to acknowledge Douglas as an actor even after they come to realize that he is not the limo driver. Hermoine and Sedge have peaked creatively some time ago but they still have enough good will from their heyday to terrorize those beneath them. Mona (Talia Lugacy), an Uzbekistani immigrant in need of a green card, is the object of their affections and scorn. Both of them use her as a sex object and a muse with little reward, though they forget that she’s there once mild-mannered Douglas arrives, ready to be exploited.
The acting sometimes surpasses the script, which goes through the motions without the need for cheap twists and revelations. The characters can be taken at face value. Noonan could probably be more heartbreaking as Douglas, but his neither-here-nor-there quality makes it believable that Hermoine and Sedge could easily wash their hands of him. Varjas gives the handsome and perfectly awful Sedge that late-80s/early-90s Malkovichian quality that doesn’t have much going on underneath but is fun to watch. Vukovic’s Hermoine is the most fully formed character of the bunch. The middle-aged actress who’s terrified of getting older is well-charted territory, but Vukovic is beastly when she condemns mediocre actors in the second act. Both she and Noonan’s script play by the rules here, but watching Vukovic, with her little girl voice and Judi Dench face, fight for her creative life is a thrill. Lugacy is a bit out of place with her limited range of emotions and questionable accent, but she is often fascinating to watch. Gangling and beautiful, she justifies the allure that keeps Sedge and Hermoine attached to Mona.
The Shape of Something Squashed is not likely to see life outside of this production; this is both its greatest strength and weakness. The script calls for Douglas to be very tall and foreboding, even though he would not hurt a fly. This fits Noonan to a T. Mona’s hair is the key feature that draws the other characters to her, and indeed Lugacy’s hair flows down the length of her back. These are simple characteristics, but seeing a new play that makes such obvious direct references to its creators within the DNA of its characters seems to timestamp it and keep it within the confines of this particular space with these particular actors. Certainly it is a privilege as a theatergoer to see a play so fresh that it almost appears to be breathing, but the routine nature of the proceedings makes its expiration date seem all the more visible. In that spirit, I recommend The Shape of Something Squashed as something unsuccessful but also as a fragile mixture of successful bits of which I cannot quite let go.
The Shape of Something Squashed is playing at Paradise Factory (64 E. 4th St.) from February 19-March 16, 2014. For tickets and showtimes, visit http://www.paradisefactory.org.