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Jon Dorf and Thomas Williams proved last night in their work Behind the Back Room that delicatessens are not the place to get a taste of student playwrighting. This piece just doesn't cut the mustard.
Behind the Back Room
Written by Jon Dorf '93 and Thomas Williams
In the Mather House TV Room
Through November 10
The entire play takes place in Barney's Delicatessen, where Rob and Bobby, the two men behind the counter, pass limitless hours churning out sandwiches for a lunch rush that never arrives. They cower under the threatening influence of an ominously absent boss named Barney as Rob discloses piecemeal the play's central concerns. Among these are the presence of a mysterious and impenetrable room "behind the back room" of the deli, which he spends most of his time trying to infiltrate; a violent "occurrence" which resulted in the disappearance of the deli's previous employees; and the undisclosed identity of their employer, Barney. Five peripheral characters wander in and out of the play, furnishing information about the "occurrence," the former employees, and the contents of the "room."
quality of an allegory without its depth of meaning. Presumably, this is intentional--the promotions for the play reading "Dorf on Life" announce its vaguely allegorical purpose. The text offers an absurdist vision that is as empty as a Zen koan, as resonant as the sound of one hand clapping. Rob and Bobby's disclosures on Life read like something off a fortune cookie or bumper sticker: "A life full of love is like being a poor person with a refrigerator--you don't have one," and "Life's a marathon and then you run one." Best of all is the aphorism: "Life's a piece of shit and then you bite off more than you can chew, maybe, but you don't break your back."
While somewhat offensive and unintelligible when taken out of context, these platitudes are woven into a highly idiosynchratic dialogue. Punctuated by puns and wordplay, it succeeds in pulling laffs as often as it fails. Bobby (Sean Williford) and Rob (Joel Rainey) conduct a whirlwind, rapid-fire dialogue that frequently disintegrates into slurs and incoherence, a problem that rests as much with the actors' nervous pitch as with the text itself.
This neurotic energy undermines the various dramatic moments of the play. Tense and serious moments are delivered with the same frenetic energy as humorous ones. At one point Bobby, as fed up with Rob's hackneyed moralizing and witless witticisms as we are, goes on a rampage in which he brings the play's quick pace to a grinding halt--at least it reads this way in the text. Yet Rainey delivers the speech with the same monochromatic, sugar-high intensity that characterizes most of Bobby's delivery. The result is an indeterminate dramatic haze that kills moments of potential power.
This problem of dramatic tension and variation is complicated by the fact that this play treats itself with frank absurdity and insouciance. As Rob remarks at one point, "Even when something happens here, nothing happens." The text seems to strive for the bizarre comedy of nothingness epitomized in Waiting For Godot. In Beckett's work, though nothing happens, the audience is satisfied and even amused. But these characters lack the magnetism and originality of a Vladimir or an Estragon.
Dorf and Williams have created a play with the form of absurdity, but lacking in the witty and poignant content that makes Godot so appealing. The audience drowns in a verbal melange that finally forces us to ask, along with Rob, "Is this story going somewhere?"
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