Any play that includes among its characters the reincarnation of F. Scott Fitzgerald is aiming to grab attention, and “Wordplays”––a new play written and directed by Crimson arts editor Nathan O. Hilgartner ‘14 that ran through Sunday the 21st at the Adams Pool Theater––did just that. But while it may bill itself as “a wry and at times provocative” play, it doesn’t deliver on that description. A lopsided cast failed to redeem the play’s repetitive script, resulting in a production that lagged where it promised to crackle with wit.
“Wordplays” is a set of three one-act plays, all of which grapple with the meaninglessness of existence. In the first work, “Block,” kindergartners Tim (Matthew J. Bialo ‘15) and Jackie (Danielle T. Lessard ‘16) experience an existential crisis when they are told to clean up the elaborate building-block racetrack they have created. Lessard’s fluid body language captured a child’s lack of self-consciousness, and her choice of a cutesy, overly babyish voice would have worn thin quickly if it didn’t create such a funny contrast with her mature lines, such as when she invoked a lapse in the space-time continuum in order to rebuild a piece of the track she had knocked over.
In keeping with the production’s existentialist themes, Tim is a sort of kindergarten Camus. Bialo deftly captured his pint-sized angst, especially when he showed how increasingly invested he was in the “world” that he created. For example, when Tim confronted Jackie after she abandons their creation, Bialo managed to capture just how wounded his character was without tipping into melodrama. Bialo and Lessard gave it their all, and the result is a solid piece of theater.
However, things began to go downhill with the second play, “And One Fine Morning.” The protagonist Janice (Lessard) is a college drop-out-turned-waitress who happens to sit down at a bus stop next to Scotty (Bialo), who thinks he’s the reincarnation of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He sits smoking and drinking Manhattans like a proper Jazz Age gentleman (although his ziplock baggy of maraschino cherries is decidedly less than dignified). Much to Janice’s chagrin, Scotty proceeds to narrate the world as it passes by. Here Bialo’s talent was more apparent than in the first play; from his first lines, he commanded the stage. And when Scotty’s smug, self-assured veneer began to give way to desperation, Bialo executed the turn with perfect precision. “Genius never ties,” Scotty exclaims toward the end of the play, but through nuanced body language Bialo let us see just how fragile Scotty’s belief in that assertion is. The confidence and charisma of Bialo’s performance almost, but not quite, masked the fact that the play began to repeat itself and its material was far overextended.
Lessard, however, was much more unsteady in this piece. Her performance was the most believable when her character was relaxing, smoking a cigarette and lobbing teasing questions at Scotty. However, when her character was angry or on her guard, Lessard’s acting stiffened up. The aggression and irony she injected into her voice came off as forced and neutralized the chemistry that the duo were supposed to have. After their verbal skirmishes escalated into a yelling match that left both demoralized, Scotty expressed surprise that he had “cracked her shell”—but what shell? Her character was painfully simple, and Lessard’s portrayal added no depth. The strength of Bialo’s performance could’t redeem the show’s other flaws; as it’s drawn further and further out, the plot began to weaken and Lessard was unable to pick up the slack.
The final play, “The Necropolis,” is set in a South American cemetery, where an irreverent gravedigger (Joshua G. Wilson ‘13) is idly eating lunch and singing doggerel verses. It’s not long before Bialo and Lessard stepped onstage again, this time as two amnesiacs trying to figure out who they are. The gravedigger shepherds these two lost souls through their groping attempts to construct stories for themselves, sometimes serious, sometimes light-hearted. Here again Bialo outshined Lessard, projecting fear and yearning without going over the top. Lessard still had the same snarky, sardonic tone of the previous play, and this time it was utterly out of step with what the piece called for. For example, in recounting her bewildering trip through a city that she no longer recognizes, she didn’t communicate a sense of loss. Instead, she just seemed annoyed.
“Wordplays,” like its characters, has an identity crisis: it doesn’t know if it’s supposed to be funny or serious. Without a dominant tone to work with or a strong directorial hand to guide them, the actors were unmoored and none of their performances quite connect with each cother. It attempted to confront life’s biggest questions, but the play was more about missed connections than anything else: between an actor and a part, and between an idea and its execution.