theater review

In Islander, a Toxic Man Faces Off With Himself

He’s dropped the gloves. Photo: Maria Baranova

For all the bad press toxic masculine hypercompetitive narcissism gets, you gotta give it its due: Nothing is funnier. There is such a stumblebum charm in macho self-regard! If only there were a way to enjoy it, separate from all its nasty real-world impacts. Happily, there’s Katie Brook and Liza Birkenmeier’s Islander, a delightfully silly show at HERE Arts Center, which goes down as easily as a cold brewski. The mostly-a-monologue is a full 12 ounces of athletospeak, delivered pure, served with dignity.

On a nearly empty stage, a swaggering, nameless Man (David Gould) holds forth, alternately bragging about his achievements and castigating himself for various failings. His language is a little garbled, but it also has a wild, flaky poetry to it. For a long time, he doesn’t mention what his field is, nor why his hands are so important. (“I’ve got great hands and a great face: They’ve been, you know, lights out,” he says.) He obsesses over his status. Is he a winner? A loser? The Man wants to explain away the odd fact of his losses, which strike him as totally unfair, since he’s such a great guy. He excuses and admits; he boasts and deflects. “It’s like I’m a tale of two men.”

Gould radiates confidence, light on his sneakered feet, yet Man’s eyes flicker with doubt. At least he’s strong in his precepts. “Number one: Start out strong from the gate. Two: Secure the future. Three: Convince John to stay.” That third objective hints at the dialogue’s original source. Playwright Birkenmeier combed through interviews and podcasts and game commentary about the New York Islanders’ 2017–2018 NHL season and then collaged together Man’s composite monologue, using no words of her own. The “John” the Man mentions is John Tavares, the star center who, after becoming a free agent in 2018, switched to the Maple Leafs, rocking his old team to its skates. This context gets more apparent as the odd 75-minute show goes on, which weakens it a smidge: Islander is most perfect when it’s most abstract.

Brook and Birkenmeier are in their element here, serving a whole buffet of downtown techniques. Text projected on the back wall offers Brechtian section headings; an early intervention by an audience plant violates the fourth wall. And as would any experimental director worth her salt, Brook has Gould break into a dream ballet. Set to anthemic power guitar (piped in by sound designer Ben Williams), Gould leaps and spins, flirts with an invisible paparazzo over one shoulder, then mimes his getaway in an invisible car. It’s ridiculous and adolescent: the male star, deconstructed. Brook has still more tricks up her sleeve, including more postmodern movement sequences, and a star turn by John himself, played — just as the emperor is played in Noh — by a child.

Yet Man’s cockamamie verbal ballet isn’t just a product of the makers’ avant-garde theater interests — it’s a conscientious reflection of English as it is spoken. Verbatim compilation is a shortcut to wonderful dialogue; we’re all poets and we don’t know it. “I had a reputation of being a dominant guy — in the early 2000s. But if we just talk about me, then we’re in a glass box of emotions,” Man says. There are writers who would kill to write a line so doofy, so poignant, so loaded with subtext and humor. In Islander, we can hear how comic such “overheard” text can be. Aficionados know that verbatim comedy climaxed 11 years ago with Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s 2010 Romeo and Juliet, which gathered interviewees’ misrememberings about Shakespeare’s plot, then delivered them with melodramatic gusto. Islander does not quite slam the puck home in this way — the play falters in its dedication to the absurd language and loses velocity. But when it’s funny, it’s screamingly funny, and it maintains that hilarious pitch for its first two periods, and even some of overtime.

This kind of not-writing is in the ascendant: The Broadway transfers of both Half Straddle’s Is This a Room and Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. will bring the strategy to much bigger audiences, if not quite into the mainstream. (Is This a Room uses the transcript from Reality Winner’s arrest; Dana H. plays the recording of a long interview Hnath’s mother, as an actor lip-syncs.) Why the sudden trend? I think it’s a pleasure to hear verbatim texts because we’re all hungry for truth. You might not trust the documentaries you watch because they’re starting to deep-fake the audio. You can rarely believe biopics because they play fast and loose with facts. But if an experimental playwright says she didn’t make up her text, you can relax, lean back in your theater seat, and crack open a refreshing can of reality.

In Islander, a Toxic Man Faces Off With Himself