I’ve got this recurring grumble: “This isn’t a play; it’s a movie, edited live.” Problem is, I’m also an enormous hypocrite. Sure, the critic in me doesn’t want to see theater habitually ape the conventions of mainstream television and film. I don’t want young playwrights to turn their Dexter spec scripts into “plays” with little more than a Find/Replace and some scene-change music. But the squealing, greasy, Junior Mint–popping fan in me absolutely loves it when themes, techniques, shortcuts, etc., are imported directly from the big and small screens. (A process which, let’s be fair, has been going on, in one form or another, since the dawn of film.) I often find myself reluctantly delighted when the theater turns grindhouse on me — and the lower the brow, the grubbier the genre, the happier I get. That is, if it’s done well.
I draw your attention to Recall (playing at the Wild Project through July 7), a paranoid thriller by the young playwright Eliza Clark, who’s worked in the trenches of Rubicon and The Killing. She’s also very much a creature of the theater, with work developed at MTC, Provincetown, Yale, and EST. But her love of (and proficiency with) the language of television storytelling shows. In the case of Recall, this is nothing to be ashamed of. Fluidly directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt (Fisheye), this is a taut satirical drama about a near-future America that closely monitors its violent children. The System prides itself on preempting another Columbine, but a lot of carnage seems to be falling through the cracks; we sense there’s another, darker agenda at work. (It’s never specified, but you’ll recognize its scent from a range of properties, from Firestarter to X-men.)
Suffice it to say there is a List of incipient psychopaths, and the kids who are on it (it’s whispered) go to the Fishtank, where they are forcibly reprogrammed — or, we deduce, occasionally executed. But some, like Lucy (the terrifying young Jordyn DiNatale), are special. She’s monitored “in the wild,” roaming freely about the country with her doting, blowsy mom Justine (Katya Campbell, sexy, tragic, funny, excellent). As Lucy’s slightly robotic minder Charlotte, the Civilians’ Colleen Werthmann is a marvelously upsetting presence, her broad comic portrayal drawing us in for the kill. As the neutered, dithering men in the lives of these often-frighteningly decisive women, Caleb Scott and Owen Campbell, playing a suspiciously eligible bachelor and a high-school outcast, respectively, are both delicately superb.
Recall isn’t Clark’s great play: As plot-driven naturalism, it has a few nagging holes; as theater, it suffers from a less than fully fleshed metaphorical skeleton. But beneath its late-cable atmospherics, it has something properly distressing to say about our curiously paradoxical attitudes toward children and parenting, our pathological blend of helicopter parenting and total moral neglect, of surveillance-state data collection and utter abandonment. And Clark commands her dialogue flawlessly; she’s got a silver ear and a fully wound stopwatch, both of which, I suspect, she’s honed in another, more verbally restricted medium. (That’s the good thing about a tour of duty in television: I suspect it makes a writer abandon mere language as a crutch.) She’s aided by a fine company of actors and highly disciplined direction (two things Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s Colt Coeur troupe is becoming known for). Is Recall really a moody indie flick posing as a play? Perhaps, but it sits comfortably in both worlds. I walked out with a blue tinge in my fingertips, thoroughly entertained, satisfactorily unsettled.
I’ll be taking that feeling with me into Sovereign (playing at the Secret Theater through July 1) tonight. This is the last chapter in Mac Rogers’s Honeycomb Trilogy, a collection of full-length plays about an alien invasion of Earth and its aftermath. Really, it’s about the partisans of a planned society working to exterminate adherents of a libertarian one, and vice versa — with no clear winner and no moral victory on either side, only devastation, global rapine, and the slim possibility of love as a partial redeemer. Yeah, Mac’s an optimist. He’s also an old friend, and thus I can’t legitimately, evenhandedly review his plays. But with this trilogy and his recent, acclaimed Universal Robots, he’s been experimenting with so-called “genre” elements in committedly theatrical language. (Battlestar Galactica is clearly a touchstone.) Whether he and Clark are successful is ultimately up to the audience — this breed of theater depends more on audience rapture than strategic alienation. Is that cheap? It can be. Done right, it can also be a genuine pleasure, even a revelation. B-movie Theater is a boundary-crossing, brow-merging, mongrelizing force, and I’m a fierce, nay psychopathic partisan of all mongrelizing forces — especially when they’re happening live, in the same room, where you can’t flip the channel or click away.