I love Fringe. And like many theatergoers, I head off each day with tolerance and hope. The tolerance is for shows that are long on ambition, and the hope is for something more.
Imagine my surprise at finding that hope fulfilled on my second day of reviewing.
The play is Exit Carolyn by Jennie Berman Eng, and if you hurry, you can see it at Caos on F, where Nu Sass Productions has staked out its own theatrical territory.
Exit Carolyn is about a group of friends who have known and supported each other since childhood. They share memories of the playground as well as high school and college. Three of them – Julie, Lorna and Carolyn – share an apartment, while the fourth, Matt, who is Carolyn’s brother, still lives at home in the suburbs.
Suddenly, Carolyn is gone. And the three left behind must decide whether and how to fill her room and pay her share of the rent.
Exit Carolyn begins well before the lights go down. Hilary Kelly, who plays Julie as a bored young woman fidgeting on a couch, snorts dope from a honey jar, sniffs perfume ads in Cosmopolitan, stretches her fingers, listens (and sings along) to loud pop music and gobbles pastries. It’s a bravura performance, staged in front of an audience that is still walking around, talking and texting.
Julie is mourning her loss by refusing to go to work, or even to leave the apartment. Content to have Carolyn’s mother pay the bills, she is determined to turn the unused room into a shrine.
Lorna, on the other hand, is madly busy. Her method of dealing is denial. She takes multi-tasking to new heights, managing to exercise while drinking her coffee. She also sprays the couch with air freshener and goes off to work every single day. Played by Jasmine Jones, she is a fountain of energy, trying to blast Julie out of her torpor while secretly advertising for a new roommate.
The new roommate, Avery, is portrayed by Alison Donnelly, who imbues the role with a kind of radiant honesty. Avery is weird, naive to the point of absurdity, but nevertheless an antidote to the denial of one and the wallowing-in-grief of the other.
Matt, the fourth member of the group, is a perfect foil for them all. Lanky and cute, Torin Lusebrink inhabits the role as though born inside it. He is the epitome of the best friend’s brother, the childhood friend who has lost more than a roommate and whose curiosity and humor light up the stage like fireflies on a window. (And yes, that happens too.)
Bridget Grace Sheaff directs the group – and works closely with Set Designer Jessica Cancino, Stage Manager Kita Burri, Sound Designer Robert Pike and Lighting Designer E-hui Woo to create the illusion of three separate spaces on one tiny stage.
For Sheaff, the greatest challenge in directing Exit Carolyn was the need to keep the empty room visible throughout the performance. This is achieved through a combination of plexiglass walls, lighting and sound, so that the room is a palpable shrine to its previous owner.
Jennie Berman Eng is the playwright who has woven this tale of darkness and light, and sprinkled it all with an abundance of humor that goes far beyond most iterations of comedy.
A member of Playwrights Arena at Arena Stage, Eng’s work has been performed in New York and Los Angeles as well as DC, where her most recent play was part of the Page to Stage Festival at The Kennedy Center last year. Called Shoah Business, it was directed by Shaeff.
The costumes – designed by Angela Kay Pirko, who is also the producer – are hilariously funny. Ranging from the grungiest sweats to the gowns of a homecoming queen and the fanciest exercise outfits imaginable, these get-ups are exaggerations of high and low fashion run amuck.
Even the props – or should I say especially the props – are perfect. Created by Katherine Offutt, these range from a homemade bong to a coffee mug and a platter of half-eaten Danish.
Exit Carolyn is so good – and so professional – that it is sure to be a highlight of Fringe.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
Exit Carolyn plays through July 30, 2017, at Caos on F Street – 923 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets through July 23, call (866) 811-4111, purchase them at the venue, or purchase them online. Tickets for performances July 26 to July 30, 2017 may be purchased directly through Nu Sass online.