What better setting for black-box theater than a figurative black box — a stalled elevator — with two discordant strangers trapped inside?
Luigi Laraia’s Too Close is definitely too close for comfort. One can’t resist the situational analogy: life’s random encounters, not-so-random ups and downs (we program our own fates by pushing each other’s buttons?). “And the best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.” Trusty machines break down, technology disappoints, and we compartmentalized humans must rely on atrophied wits and loose alliances for survival.
Unfortunately, while visually appealing, the one-act play – more like a first draft – is not so much “claustrophobic and gripping” (as billed) as it is crowded with ideas and aurally grating.
The so-called elevator play, of course, is an old technique writers use to develop characters. Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter. Put your rats in a cage and watch them squirm. But character development here – while lively and liberally quoting Shakespeare, Voltaire and Einstein – proved stunted.
Daniel Owen is distinguished, in dark suit with briefcase, as British environmental engineer Anthony Keller. Richard “Dr. T” Tanenbaum plays a giddy, near-hypochondriac history prof, Dylan Salles, in cross-trainers and backpack. They’re both headed to the 39th floor – perhaps a nod to Hitchcock’s suspenseful The 39 Steps. Turns out they should have taken the stairs.
Although the characters at first are clearly delineated – Dylan is overly friendly and effusive, Anthony is stand-offish and erudite – eventually they become indistinguishable in their bellows and sweaty undershirts and, without proper foundation, act out in inexplicable ways.
The set consists of a low metallic frame marking off the lift, like a boxing ring, and a rectangle of light against the wall, spotted with witty office signs pointing to the elevator, the stairwell (in case of emergency) and neglecting to state a minimum-weight warning.
The burden is that the steel box devolves into the playwright’s soapbox. The lines explode non-stop – so much rhetoric and very little figurative space for these fine actors to breathe or feel their way through the situation. Political polemics (climate change, wealth disparity, scientific policy) smother their humanity and suck out what 2% of oxygen remains in the room.
The limits of technology are apparent: Despite modern society’s ever-connected sheath, Otis’ elevator shaft mimics an ancient tomb. Emails, texts, security systems disappoint as the men lose track of time and their senses.
To Director Pablo Andrade’s credit, a few devices work: During one unbreachable speech, Owen paces, maniacally measuring each inch of his confinement. Tanenbaum shreds his newspaper, littering the cage like a gerbil. A combat scene, choreographed by playwright Laraia, smacks of a defiant and primal need for comfort. Where voluminous words fail, the emptying of their bags to assess their survival options is memorable and could have been better used to flesh out their stories.
There is also good use of aromatherapy – a precious orange to nibble on, cologne that reminds Anthony of his hard-to-reach father. Combined with cinematic compositions by Paul Critser, Owen deftly turns his soliloquies into haunting Hollywood-worthy riffs. We needed more of this, and less tangential manifesto-style jabber and bleak world-weary word association.
But hope never dies, especially during Fringe, and there’s a blueprint here for a powerful statement on man’s misplaced trust and priorities – if only Laraia could choose a single train of thought. After all, the sold-out crowd was affected. On their way out, they bypassed the elevators and, chatting up new connections, took the stairs.
Running Time: 60 minutes, with no intermission.
Recommended for ages 14 and up.
Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2016 Capital Fringe Page.
Read the preview of ‘Too Close.’