‘Autobahn’ Is An Emotional Ride

Carlton E. Forbes

Emily A. Cregg ’09 and Michael B. Hoagland ’07 enjoy a moment behind the wheel in “Bench Seat,” in the opening mini-drama of Neil Labute’s “Autobahn” which will run until Dec. 16 in the Loeb Experimental Theatre.

“Nobody knows the trouble that I’ve seen.”

This lyric is emphasized in the music that opens Neil Labute’s “Autobahn: A Play Cycle,” and it suggests a major theme of the new Loeb Experimental Theatre show: within the private confines of an automobile, conflicts spanning the full range of human emotions can emerge between two people.

Produced by Veronica T. Golin ’07 and Stephen T. Volpe ’07, “Autobahn” takes as its stage the front seat of a car; a series of short dramas reveals five couples at critical moments in their relationships. “Autobahn” is a character-driven play in several senses of the word, and its tight focus on the relationships it depicts in each piece results in a truly intense 90 minutes.

Director Adam G. Zalisk ’07 has brought a show to the Ex that often seems like a cross between a reality TV show and an edgier, grimmer version of the movie “Crash.” Running through Dec. 16, “Autobahn” strives to describe the lives of ordinary people and the ties that bind them together. At the same time, it offers a social commentary on these lives in the issues that each couple face. Although “Autobahn” occasionally lacks sufficient development, it succeeds in presenting isolated conflicts and relationships with intensity and depth.

The actors of “Autobahn” succeed most in their capacity for revelation. Most of the dramatic tension in each play revolves around the exposure of the “story” behind each couple’s relationship that has created the current crisis, and the actors excel at gradually conveying that explication over the space of twenty minutes in a car seat.

For instance, in “Road Trip,” the central piece that depicts a disturbing relationship between a high school girl and an older man on a cross-country journey, Jason M. Lazarcheck ’08 skillfully depicts his character with an affability that makes him all the more chilling, acting like a benevolent father-figure while delivering lines that increasingly suggest his character is anything but.

Relative newcomer Emily A. Cregg ’09 is also at her best in “Road Trip.” Cregg displays a level of sensitivity as the vulnerable high school student that doesn’t appear in her caricatured appearance in the initial mini-drama, “Bench Seat,” as a teenaged girlfriend with separation issues.

As the reluctant boyfriend in “Bench Seat,” Michael B. Hoagland ’07 brings the same aw-shucks, ingenuous façade to his character that he had in this fall’s Mainstage play, “The Marriage of Bette and Boo.” The HRDC veteran’s somewhat one-dimensional performance, although comical, occasionally falls flat in “Bench Seat”–but Hoagland’s presence becomes exponentially more powerful and direct in his second appearance, in the drama “Merge.”

Lillian Ritchie ’08 also performs commendably in “Merge” as a businesswoman who attempts to explain a traumatic travel experience to her increasingly upset husband (Hoagland). Ritchie presents a complex character competently in this drama, presenting a believable mix of the rational and irrational in her role.

Ritchie’s other major role is one of the best in the show. In “All Apologies,” a one-sided conversation between a couple experiencing troubles in their marriage, she delivers the single funniest monologue of “Autobahn.” A mixture of rambling bluster, linguistic commentary, and heartfelt apology, Ritchie manages to make her scene really come to life.

Sophie C. Kargman ’08 also turns in a solid performance as a foster mother facing failure in “Autobahn,” the eponymous final piece of the play. Like many of the other actors, Kargman’s performance occasionally lacks momentum, seeming to ramble for long periods without character development. Nonetheless, Kargman brings a strong personality to her role that makes it comically superficial, yet ultimately deeply poignant.

The lighting, designed by Nicholas J. Shearer ’09, is highly nuanced, suggesting the emotional tone of each mini-drama with varying degrees of harshness. The music, chosen by sound operators Natalie J. Peters ’09 and Jonah C. Priour ’09, is well-selected and enhances the other aspects of the show nicely.

The set, designed by Lizzie J. Rose ’08, is visually interesting without detracting from the drama. It primarily consists of a group of TVs and a video screen that surround the central car seat; videotapes of the actors explaining their personal thoughts and opinions, reminiscent of reality TV, appear between mini-plays.

Given the set’s abundance of machinery, director Zalisk’s decision to avoid fully exploiting all that technology in the show seems quizzical. The TVs and screens mostly play a peripheral role, taking a back seat to the conflicts between the actual characters. However, Zalisk’s choice is ultimately for the best, as the dramatic tension between each couple is gripping by itself; the interference of too much inhuman technology would be distracting.

The effect of “Autobahn’s” intense focus on the conflicts between its characters tends to evoke a feeling of inertia: it presents snapshots of the various stages in a relationship rather than the journeys in between. Nonetheless, each snapshot of “Autobahn” presents a compelling portrayal of these relationships: a significant achievement in itself.

—Reviewer Mary A. Brazelton can be reached at mbrazelt@fas.harvard.edu