HOW MANY ANGELS can dance on the edge of a Gillette Platinum-Plus? Not too many. and the ones who can need help, so they use other people like guywires--it's all a matter of trust. But then trust is gone like the Lone Ranger, and the angels were never really angels, anyway, just angels decorating a cake, and all that's left is a game of solitaire on the table.
Greg Stahl wrote A.T.C. in William Alfred's playwrighting class here at Harvard, so it is in parts, as one might expect, somewhat jejune. There are dialogue deserts of vast extent, some of the structure is mistaken or awkward, and the characterization can be shallow. This said, it should be added that pieces of A.T.C. are so startlingly good, so funny and true to life and viscerally engaging, that it is a joy: there are brilliant flecks of mica in the granatic escarp.
A.T.C. concerns the living arrangement of three people-Earl, an alienated poseur; Laurie, a morbid bank teller; and Jake, a banal house painter and eater of grilled cheese. Earl has snuffed someone, so he is at the mercy of a mysterious Mr. White, the landlord who never comes on the stage. Laurie is Earl's former girlfriend--she is the only one who deals with Mr. White. Jake is a mass of muscle and simplicity, the common man who finds himself lost in the midst of this weirdness. Laurie works at the A.T.C.--American Trust Company--and the play is about the breakdown of trust among the three, but particularly between Earl and Laurie.
A.T.C. explores the aesthetic of cool through these characters. As Earl, Stahl virtually explodes on the stage in the first scene. There is a refrigerator and a coffee pot and a table that wobbles and two people who don't--American Gothic, 1980--and all of a sudden here's this Great Gay Peaco k, a thermonuclear presence, strutting and preening and threatening everyone in sigh. He is what Norman Mailer called the "White Negro," the hipster: the man who sleeps with death, and seduces it.
The problem, of course, is that A.T.C. is not supposed to be a one-man show, but in performance it is very much Greg Stahl and a cast of thousands. Stahl is so firmly and permanently plugged into his vision--and it is, at least to me, a compelling vision--that there is hardly room for anyone else. The other actors become stage extras cluttering the scene and cramping Stahl. A.T.C., then, is a one-man show gone awry.
Which is not to deprecate the individual performances, which are generally quite good. Ellin Merhbach is wonderful as Laurie, the lewd bank-teller; she's titillated by the vortex, but she's got enough common sense to avoid its bottom. Michael Escamilla's lazy affected drawl is the perfect voice of doom, and he fills the part of Charlie completely. Maggie Topkis, for the most part, pulls off her characterization of Carol as the tough but sensitive New York Jewish earth mother. Alex Pearson is adequate as the seductive con on the make; if he has some problems, it might fairly be ascribed to the role, which I think is superfluous. The only real gap is Dave Vanderburgh, who is somewhat too slow and static for a slow and static play.
THERE'S A STRONG SUSPICION throughout that director Glyn Vincent just gave up on certain parts of the play, figuring that that which was strong was strong enough to carry the longeurs. One of the first responsibilities of a director is pace, yet A.T.C. drags at times like a victim of Old West desperados tied to his horse. The dangers of the pregnant pause should be obvious to everyone, but they were not obvious to Vincent--too much weight is given to the significance of the silences. But his work with the actors seems to have paid off, as I have said, and the set, which I believe Vincent had a hand in, perfectly complements the action in its claustrophobic outlines.
So next weekend you have a choice: you can go out each night and get drunk in a sort of routine way like everyone else, or you can go see other plays that are being performed better elsewhere by professionals, or you can go to A.T.C. There is a powerful intrinsic interest in the new work of a contemporary--this is the only time you can see A.T.C.; it is not being done in repertory in Brooklyn. And Greg Stahl will touch you--that much is certain.