theater review

Improv on the Roof, Catharsis in Aisle 5

From What Else Is True?, at A.R.T.
From What Else Is True?, at A.R.T. Photo: Maria Baranova

There’s something about our late teens and early 20s that attracts us — like kittens drawn to cardboard boxes — to rooftops. Just before its intermission, David Rosenberg’s What Else Is True? bundles its characters up onto a chilly New York City roof at Christmastime. They smoke weed and exchange silly gifts. They stare out into the glittering cosmos of city lights. They imagine their successful, perfect futures. You could be forgiven for expecting them to burst into “Our Time.”

They are a college improv team — six awkward, aspiring hearts who, for the moment at least, can imagine no greater happiness and no deeper intimacy than the bubble of hope and affirmation that surrounds them. If the moment feels like a bit of a trope, it also feels truthful. I can remember a freshman-year-of-college sunrise, on a roof, standing in the embrace of two seniors from my experimental theater company, dizzy and elated, feeling like the all-night play we had just done was the greatest thing on earth. Its title? This Room Is Full of Rooftops.

The pleasures of What Else Is True? come from its tender attention to these moments: the swells of almost overwhelming possibility and platonic love that break over our young hearts like waves. It’s sincere, with a bighearted commitment from its actors. Gameness isn’t a problem.

Lack of an engine, however, is. Rosenberg’s play accumulates, but it doesn’t build. Its many — too many — scenes come dutifully one after another, with more feeling of inevitability than revelation. We can tell from the beginning that what we’re about to watch is the gradual breaking apart of this college fellowship: the natural series of mundane conflicts, shifts of allegiance and interest, messy attractions, and simmering resentments that will turn a group of passionately inseparable kids into an assortment of individual adults who remember each other sometimes. The play isn’t wrestling with something, it’s simply showing us something: Look — we grow apart and grow up. Ain’t that the truth.

It’s not that there needs to be an alien attack or a sudden, shocking reveal. Inevitability isn’t necessarily a flaw onstage, if the elastic, porous possibilities of the stage are being taken advantage of. A playwright interested in the little deaths of our youth might, like Tennessee Williams, reach across the footlights and speak to us directly about the music, the lights, the style. Or she might, like Clare Barron, bend time — mixing past and future, putting the words and desires of children into the bodies of adults. The point is to make the familiar fearfully and wonderfully strange.

Rosenberg, though, keeps things predictable, plausible, chronological: It’s a new school year, a beloved senior member of the group is away for a semester abroad, a new member has joined. (He’s a transfer student, new not only to the improv gang but to the whole school! This is extra-convenient for exposition.) We then proceed, scene by scene, month by month, toward the big showdown: the National College Improv Tournament finals in Chicago. You can probably guess how it goes, and how it ends.

That overextension of premise in What Else Is True? arises not just from a feeling of being able to see straight down the alley to where the pins will eventually fall, but also from the play’s commitment to its relentlessly cringey energy. Improv at its best can be a pee-yourself-funny endorphins rush, but we never get to see these characters achieve that kind of giddy apotheosis. Instead, we watch a lot of wince-inducing practice sessions and warm-up games (while being told that this team is really, really good — like, “potential national champions” good). It’s brave of the actors to take on real-time improv challenges, and it makes sense that we’d be asked to live in a performatively awkward vibe for at least some of a play about improv kids. But that vibe hardly ever lets up, and it starts to create a distance between us and the characters. It lets us sit in a too-comfortable place of maturity over them. It’s not that Rosenberg’s gaze backwards at characters who are just entering their 20s lacks affection; it’s that he’s so bent on illustrating their manic naïveté — and allowing us both to cringe at it and sigh at it nostalgically — that he doesn’t provide them with much nuance.

He does, at least, give them variety. The actors of What Else Is True? make the very most of their gaggle of misfits, with a physical exuberance and closeness that suggest strong ensemble-building work from the directors, Adam Coy and Jake Beckhard. We meet the seniors the group calls “Mommy and Daddy,” the driven, only-chill-on-the-outside Samira (Olivia Abiassi) and the nerdy, ambitious Jamie (Adam Langdon). There’s also Becky (Serena Berman), a former child star of a kid’s show, who has an agent (ooh!) and keeps getting delayed on her way to rehearsal by freshmen who recognize her in the elevator (aah!). There’s the transfer student, Miles, a Baton Rouge–to–NYC transplant who’s given a crisp, well-observed journey by Sam Gonzalez as he moves from nervous new kid to confidently queer, fashion-forward featured actor in the “spring show.” (It’s Sweeney Todd, and the uncontainable theater-kid delirium is real.) And then there are the weirdos: Zeke (Jawuan Hill) and Jeanna (Ema Zivkovic).

Thank goodness for the weirdos. (Here and always.) What Else Is True? comes most alive, and finds some of its funniest, most tender terrain, in Hill and Zivkovic’s performances. As Zeke — a Black kid who remembers loving “anime and like, high-art samurai movies” while the boys he grew up with preferred “football and like, pussy and shit” — Hill is understated and openhearted. His scene of confused, increasingly despairing confession of love to Zivkovic’s bawdy, derpy, mask-wearing Jeanna is one of the play’s strongest. Zivkovic, meanwhile, is immensely watchable as Jeanna, a clown in baggy overalls and dorky vintage T-shirts who craves the warm cuddle of the group, but who uses their rambunctious, scattershot strangeness to avoid personal intimacy at all costs.

With all the potential for juicy human messiness and idiosyncrasy in characters like Zeke and Jeanna, it’s a shame that Rosenberg gives in to the current compulsion among white male creatives to make their avatar characters into apologies for the breed. Jamie essentially exists to grow ever more insufferable, to mask his taking up of more and more space with habitual self-deprecation, and to lose the trust of his cohort owing to his privileged myopia. Is it a truthful scenario? Perhaps. But what else is true? And, in a larger sense, when it comes to the theatrical container that both holds and shapes these characters — their youth, their experience, their imagined futures — what else is possible?

In a supermarket in Brooklyn, the playwright Chloe Xtina and the director Kaycie Sweeney have found a literal container for the story they have to tell, and it feels rife with possibilities, immediately exciting. Xtina’s play, Joan of Arc in a Supermarket in California (no obvious relation to the Ginsberg poem), is being presented by the Tank, an incubator for emerging artists and new work, inside E&S Wholesome Foods, a small grocery right off the Washington Avenue entrance to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

You show up and you stand on line on the sidewalk. You get to pick a treat out of a milk crate while you wait (Toblerone? Dill-pickle Kettle chips? Haribo?). You watch one of the supermarket’s outdoor light bulbs flicker ominously — if this is more than luck, then big props to the show’s lighting designer, Pema Baldwin — and you inhale the scent of cloves and size up the crowd’s tattoos and haircuts while you wait to go in.

From Joan of Arc in a Supermarket in California, at a supermarket in Brooklyn. Photo: Ellie Gravitte

Inside, you nestle on folding chairs in two long rows, facing each other across an aisle. In front of you, the Clorox wipes and Mrs. Meyer’s soap; behind you, barbecue sauce and Cup Noodles. Benito, the bodega cat, wanders through. Blue gels on the overhead fluorescents give the space a washed-out feeling, as if you’re living inside a downbeat indie film. On either end of the long aisle, a warm glow and a loud hum, freezers and deli counter doing their night shift.

When I say that I delighted in many things about Xtina’s play, without ever quite delighting in the play itself, I hope that conveys the project’s imagination and ambition. There’s a lot here — from the setting itself, so satisfyingly tactile, to Xtina’s kaleidoscopically fractured text to the live music by Caroline Strickland and the ghostly trio of ballerinas (Amelia Evans, Gwendolyn Torrence, and Victoria Vulner) who accompany the play’s five actors. There are intriguing ingredients in this cauldron, even if the overall brew doesn’t quite yield the intended dark magic.

To reorder its pieces for the sake of quick summary, Joan of Arc in a Supermarket in California tells the story of Frances (Healy Knight), a 26-year-old who’s driving down the hot, dusty length of California’s I-5, eerily and inexorably drawn back toward the supermarket where she worked as a teenager. In dreamy snatches of soliloquy, Frances takes us in and out of her past — while, in the present, four girls at different points in their teenagerdom are at work in this same supermarket, whiling away their slow shifts, chatting and fanning themselves in the stifling heat, and complaining about their boss, the absent, looming Bob.

Joan of Arc in a Supermarket isn’t quite a comedy. In the playwright’s note, Xtina describes it as “a horror piece.” There are wildfires crackling on the horizon and something nasty in the woodshed. And as Frances makes her way down the highway, the smoke thickens. But the show is, at times, inarguably funny. There’s a chattery, freewheeling humor to the scenes with the supermarket’s current employees. Xtina lets the girls’ language tumble out in all its casual, intimate shorthand, its weirdness and messy desire. The attention-seeking, performatively sexual — and probably not actually that experienced — Zoe (Madeline Wasson) seeks affirmation from the thoughtful, responsible Gretchen (Khali Sykes). The drama-school dropout Emmalee (Izabel Mar) uses the key that comes with being Employee of the Month to sneak into the supermarket at night and leave her pheromones all over the produce. (“Hey, Gretchen,” she pants with grinning, demonic energy. “Guess what I did with this kiwi? I rubbed it on my fucking neck!”)

Most weirdly endearing of all, there’s the bespectacled, homeschooled nerd. Maaike Laanstra-Corn almost skitters away with the show as Suzy, with her bangs and braids, her chipmunk stare, and her tendency to scream, in manic enthusiasm or abject panic, usually when the situation doesn’t quite merit either. Though Xtina makes an end-of-play effort to ensnare Suzy in the story’s darker narrative, Laanstra-Corn remains sharpest and most effective as a comedian. As the youngest, most fluttery of the characters, she’s delivering the most assured performance, balancing just on the right side of clowniness. “How was your weekend?” Gretchen asks Suzy half-heartedly, and Laanstra-Corn perfectly times the bubblingly earnest reply: “It was actually really, really great. The weather was really nice, so I thought about going to the beach.” Beat. Yep, that’s it.

Though the two plays look nothing alike on the surface, Joan of Arc shares a central interest with What Else Is True?. Both plays — and they are far from alone these days — are interested in loss, particularly loss of innocence: the painful and inevitable exit from the garden, whether that garden looks like college camaraderie or self-contained, unexploited girlhood. Ultimately, Xtina’s play is a kind of exorcism of trauma. Something bad happened to Frances at the supermarket, years ago, and it changed her relationship to her own body and never let go. “I am waiting for something really, really sinister,” Frances repeats throughout the play: It’s a refrain that is intentionally out of time. The sinister thing has already happened, is still happening, to Frances and to the rest of the girls. The question is, what was/is it, and will they escape it, and how?

If this sounds a little foggy, well, it is. Xtina — especially in Frances’s curlicuing speeches — leans a bit too heavily on a kind of quasi-poetic hinting at circumstance. Description of sensation is paramount, rather than through-line of action. We get a lot of this kind of language:

I float upwards

And rush straight back into my body.

I feel bonemuscletissuefleshfatbloodcellswater.

I am mine but I am also


Euphoric. Euphoria.

If Clare Barron’s Dance Nation shared a sliver of something with What Else Is True?, it has a practically parental relationship with Joan of Arc. In the early 2000s, the Sarah Ruhl School of Playwriting swept through American drama; now, the Clare Barron School is in full swing. When the former is at its best, it can yield real poetry and high, delicate theatricality. The latter, at its strongest, marries formal playfulness with raw, unashamed, ecstatic, even grotesque bodily honesty and vulnerability. There are fluids and juices involved.

But it can, in less honed manifestations, face inward, turning a little affected and mushy around the edges, putting a bit too much trust in lyrical line breaks and narrative ambiguity. It can start to get lost in the seductive labyrinth of self, self, self.

Joan of Arc in a Supermarket in California aspires to the ecstatic and the raw — and at times, it gets there. Other times, it stays stuck in the maze. The existence of some kind of trauma at its center arguably justifies the solipsism: Frances, especially, is in the process of trying to reclaim and reassemble herself. But the play starts to circle back on itself, replaying the same beats, retreading the same territory, and the eventual climax retreats into the haze rather than clearing it.

What do we discover? Well, we figure out that the boss is much less this Bob and much more this one. The “something unspeakable” that Frances has experienced, however, remains … unspoken. I’m not trying to be willfully obtuse: Yes, you can piece together a narrative (which I won’t spoil here) out of what you’re given. But what you can’t quite do is feel that final, gripping rush of tension and release. The spark doesn’t catch. Joan of Arc has oodles of atmosphere, and plenty of the elements of good horror — but to be truly horrified, you first have to be taken more firmly in hand and thrust, willing or not, through the smoke, toward the fire.

What Else Is True? is at A.R.T. through August 26. Joan of Arc in a Supermarket in California is at E&S Wholesome Foods Grocery (98 Montgomery St, Brooklyn) through September 2.

Improv on the Roof, Catharsis in Aisle 5