As much as I admire and am entertained by fine classical acting – at Stratford and in Central Park, for instance – and by complete-package musicals (“The Prom” and “Into the Woods” come to mind), one less grand theatrical genre leaves me wondering: How do they do that? How does someone write/direct it? And how in the world is it acted with such unadorned reality?
That genre is the 21st Century American play about regular folks. Usually in heightened circumstances, yes, but not overly dramatic or even significant outside their specific milieu. Lynne Nottage writes plays like that (“Sweat,” “Clyde’s”) as does Dominique Morisseau (“Skeleton Crew”). They are not ‘Less Is More’ works; rather, they feel like ‘Not Doing Too Much Is Just Enough.’
Now comes “I’m Revolting,” Gracie Gardner’s striking new play at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater. (Maybe that the three mentioned playwrights are women is just a coincidence.) Set in the waiting room of a skin-cancer clinic, “I’m Revolting” has four patients waiting for diagnosis and treatment of various forms of melanoma. Going in, you know nothing about any of them, about their support people (there are three), or about their doctors (two). Ninety minutes later you are well acquainted with their personalities, their relationships, fears and, not least, their skin-cancer prognoses. In its dire clinical setting, it is at moments distressing and, at others, extremely funny.
Playwright Gardner, also a Brooklyn EMT, takes us through the symptoms, procedures, and after-effects of skin cancer and its treatments. Neither arcane nor dumbed down, the exposition is woven into the dialogue; we learn along with the patients.
Among the patients, nineteen-year-old Reggie (Alicia Pilgrim, endearing), resists recommended treatment on cosmetic grounds. (“Is it bad that I care more about how I look rather than that I have cancer?”) Her sister and self-appointed “health proxy,” a caustic Morgan Stanley analyst played full-out by Gabby Beans, is cynical (“Med school is pass-fail”) until enlisted to encourage Reggie’s compliance. The apparent opposites are credible sisters.
Liane, played with boundless empathy by Emily Cass McDonnell, is facing her prognosis alone despite the presence of her husband Jordan, whose unwillingness-cum inability to offer support would be hateful but for Glenn Fitzgerald’s layered performance.
It’s not the first go-round for Clyde (venerable character-actor Peter Gerety), whose ‘been there, done that’ wisdom is more on target than at first it seems. Former lifeguard-sans-sunscreen Toby (Patrick Vaill) is a fatalist, whose overbearing mother (Laura Esterman) spouts self-healing theories, including Reiki (laying on of hands) and Tibetan Singing Bowls, which she deftly demonstrates. (The bowls’ effect on Toby’s melanoma is up for discussion; I, for one, found them calming.)
The two attending doctors are as different from one another as are the patients. The senior Denise (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) is tasked with explaining prognoses and treatments to the patients (and to the audience), which Chevannes (and the script) delivers without condescension. The stern-but-compassionate physician may be hackneyed, but Chevannes overrides the cliché. Young doc Jonathan (Bartley Booz) is over-confident, which we learn in the play’s coda, is hardly a casual flaw.
That the disparate characters blend into a tidy ensemble is a credit to director Knud Adams. Working on Marsha Ginsburg’s three-side mirror-backdrop set that draws the audience into the waiting room, the focus shifts seamlessly among the characters. Each has his/her own arc and, at least in terms of the setting and timeline, a resolution. One resolution, a heartbreaker, called to mind the ending of William Inge’s “Bus Stop,” where Virgil is left, literally, out in the cold as the bus leaves. “Well…” he says, “that’s what happens to some people.” If only that were not true.
Through October 16 at Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street in Manhattan. For Tues-Sun performance schedule and tickets ($77-$107): www.atlantictheater.org