“I got everything planned, down to the minute,” says Diego (Alex Pierce), the 24-year-old assistant buyer for a family-owned Long Island department store named Bindiger's, in D. Tucker Smith's play Quake. Diego says this to his immediate superior, the store's buyer, Barry (Marc Aden Gray), who's Jewish and refers to Diego as a “spic” — employing a brand of mockery that's self-consciously over-the-line and one in many of Barry's swaggering assertions of seniority. His speech patterns resemble those of Happy in Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman's second, and second-rate, son, who talks in the cocky, urgent parlance of a player holding a winning hand, thereby revealing the great divide between swagger and self-confidence.
“Well, there's your first mistake,” Barry fires back. “Don't plan. Life's a river, Diego.”
The play, receiving its premiere in Open Fist Theatre Company's First Look Festival, is set in 2005, the pre-crash era of feverish mergers and acquisitions, and tectonic shifts in technology that fed any number of bubbles: from the finance and housing industries to video rentals to chain bookstores. Who could have imagined that credit default swaps could implode, or that Borders, after eviscerating locally owned bookshops, would be starved out by the likes of Amazon and Kindle, or that Netflix would render Blockbuster a dinosaur in five years? Actually, a number of people could have imagined, and did, but that didn't change the undertow — the foreclosures and layoffs, the decimation of independent and small businesses, the inexorable flow toward economic trepidation and stagnation, to borrow from Barry's “Life's a river” metaphor.
Quake aims to show, retrospectively, some paradoxes in the mid-decade crosscurrents of business, how ambitious people facing down the prospect of being laid off started to calculate for their own survival and advancement, like in a game of musical chairs.
The play has some “winners,” who might otherwise be called economic survivors, but as in the economy at large, there are fewer of these among the populace than in more prosperous times. In many ways, the play is a portrait of decline — economic, psychic and spiritual.
To put all this in perspective, there are two characters who have already lost most of what matters to them. Bindiger's COO, Artie (a smooth and authoritative performance by Ray Abruzzo), lost his wife to breast cancer on 9/11 — a death trivialized by the national trauma of that day. Artie spends much of the play poolside speaking to her ghost. He's quarantined their now 14-year-old, emotionally unstable daughter, Robbie (Maxie Solters), to an aunt in New Jersey because, in addition to coping with his lingering grief, his teen daughter's needs and rebelliousness have proven to be more than he can (or wants to) cope with.
Perhaps because Artie is near the top of the food chain, he finds himself drawn to the store's cleaning woman, Marena (Stephanie Terronez), who lost almost everything in the Spitak earthquake in her Armenian homeland — the basis for the play's allegorical title. It would appear she came to the U.S. with her husband, though she spends her nights illegally encamped on the store's deck furniture. When Artie asks her why she isn't with her spouse, she replies that she doesn't want to “interrupt his lap dance.”
The play's merit lies in its idiosyncratic depictions of destiny — that one can't predict from any character's station in life, from their aspirations or from their past losses, how things are going to work out for them. The fates of two different characters driven by ruthless calculation are at odds, as are the fates of two characters suffering from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Despite newspaper headlines of 2005 pointing to clear economic patterns, playwright Tucker Smith gives the human consequences of those patterns' varying outcomes, thanks to personalities and habits and unique circumstances that defy expectation. This allows the play to avoid the lazy inevitability of ennui associated with end-of-empire. Though decline is in the air, life still sparks and flares.
Unfortunately, the author's staging (with Amjali Bhimani) does just the opposite. The festival context of the play (in repertory with others) might explain the shoddy, uncredited set, adjoining three primary spaces — the executive office, the buyers' office and the store's deck furniture department — into a perfunctory symmetry that stultifies any sense of visual motion. The boxy design planted inside the cavernous theater also lends an aural hollowness, defying intimacy and giving the capable cast another in a stream of needless impediments.
The thudding silences in the dark between scenes are the most egregious of these impediments. Much of the introspective writing already transforms what might have been a thoroughbred racehorse into a pack mule, but those elongated, purgatorial scene changes take a knife to the beast's neck and keep hacking away.
Naturally, this unmasks the discursive nature of the monologues by Artie to his dead wife and of Marena to Artie. If the actors were part of an event-in-motion, the artifice of the device wouldn't appear so lazy, but the effect also is exacerbated by the TV-realistic style of the dialogue, delivered in an acting style to match. The play on paper seems to hold together more cogently than the play onstage, where the relationships of the stories to each other are harder to fathom.
The play's producer, Open Fist Theatre Company, has recently been at its best staging large-cast, screwball '30s comedies with momentum and panache. Yet there was also a keen theatrical style in Joseph Fisher's intimate play about high school teachers and a student, A Wolf Inside the Fence, staged as part of last year's First Look festival.
Every play, young or old, needs to be staged with care, particularly with the arts perceived as a frivolity in the very profit-motivated environment Tucker Smith is addressing in Quake. A misfire production of Romeo and Juliet may annoy a few audiences, but it won't do lasting damage to the play's durability. That's the risk of a sloppily conceived rendition of an intriguing new play like Quake.
Having no idea of how this came to pass, it does appear odd, from an outsider's view, that the playwright, having co-directed this work, would seem so largely responsible for the malaise.
QUAKE | By D. Tucker Smith | Presented by Open Fist Theatre | 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Sat., Aug. 20, 2 p.m., Wed., Aug. 24, 8 p.m., Sat., Aug. 27, 8 p.m. | (323) 882-6912 | openfist.org.