Between them, the five playwrights featured in Theater Breaking Through Barrier’s short play festival, Power Plays, have received the Tony, the Olivier, the Peabody, the OBIE, and have been finalists four times for the Pulitzer Prize. So how they’ve collectively managed to take a topic so important and complex — the image and issues of people with disabilities — and make something so variously trite, heavy-handed and downright wrong-headed is truly baffling.
The goal of Theater Breaking Through Barriers is, ostensibly, to “change the image of people with disabilities from one of dependence to independence, to fight stereotypes and misperceptions associated with disability, and to show how vibrant, fluid and exuberant the work of artists with disabilities can be.” Maddeningly, many of the plays commissioned for Power Plays work actively against that mission.
Things start rather unobtrusively with Bekah Brunstetter’s play, Murder, a fairly funny look at not-so-subtle jealousy between friends. Specifically, it addresses the unique sort of jealousy that plagues the literary world through the meeting of two writers, Lonnie (Pamela Sabaugh), a rookie who has just achieved unexpected and comically gargantuan literary success and Bridget (Anita Hollander), a veteran who hasn’t achieved much. Hollander, who does a fine job as Bridget, has one leg, a factor that does not influence the script. The play is not outstanding, but at least it doesn’t offend.
Neil LaBute’s play, I Dare You, is another story, remarkable as it is only for its ability to inspire so much boredom, repetition and exhaustion in just a few short minutes. It’s fitting that both its characters are not given names, seeing as they are not so much characters as thin abstractions driven by single, unshakeable desires: One (Ann Marie Morelli) is furious at Two, (Samantha Debicki) for sleeping with her boyfriend. Two says she did it only to break them apart, since she is in love with One. One is heterosexual, but that doesn’t stop Two from spending the rest of the play trying to seduce her through various insufferable feats of logic and coercion. It’s a completely implausible premise, made worse by LaBute’s hackneyed dialogue, including true stinkers like, “It hit me like a thunderbolt,” and “Nothing has stopped me in my tracks like that smile from you.” When One miraculously gives in to Two at the play’s end, our exasperation is only quelled by relief that this folly is finally over.
It’s a shame that Morelli, an actress who may very well possess some range, is stuck playing a series of unlikable, two-dimensional characters. When she appears again as Marin in David Henry Hwang’s play, Underground, she plays yet another curmudgeon, but this time with a more plausible reason for her unhappiness: She’s stuck in the 42nd Street subway station because none of the elevators are working. That’s a real and disturbing problem that people in wheelchairs must face in New York daily. And yet, that is where the realism and seriousness ends in Hwang’s trifle of a play, which morphs quickly into a tired Wizard of Oz-style quest for a working elevator, complete with an inane gang of characters meant to mirror Dorothy’s crew, including Marin’s annoying husband (Nicholas Viselli), a well-intentioned stranger (Lawrence Merritt), and a hapless MTA official (Mary Theresa Archbold). Vicki, a fantastical, wheelchair-bound Accessibility Spirit of the Underground (Jamie Petrone) makes a perky arrival later on but even her magic can’t get Marin an elevator, which, incredibly, doesn’t seem to worry Vicki too much. Her solution? Just imagine a world in which everything is better for disabled people! That seems to be a sufficient solution for everyone involved, and they end dancing to a song whose name I must have blocked out of my memory.
The only real outlier in this group is John Guare’s Between, an intriguing if slightly mystifying prose poem of a play. Set in a restaurant, it features two characters, noted in the program only as A and B, who are meeting under vague circumstances. Nothing really happens, but their playful and occasionally funny conversation, marked by Guare’s musical language, makes it a worthwhile trip. It’s not entirely clear why it’s included in this show.
Bruce Graham’s play, The Happy F&*#@!g Bind Guy, is also mystifying, but for all too concrete reasons. It’s another two-hander, this time featuring a grocery store cashier, Tim (David Rosar Stearns) and his manager, Larry (Nicholas Viselli). Larry has called Tim into his office because he can’t understand how Tim, who is blind, could possibly be outperforming his other cashiers, and moreover, how he could remain so unyieldingly chipper despite his job and sightlessness. Tim is certainly a charming character, and Graham may indeed have meant for him to serve as an example of how disabled people can live happy lives. But that doesn’t change the fact that his blindness is the butt of an entire play’s worth of jokes (even if they are sometimes his own), which does not seem particularly empowering or groundbreaking.
There are yet other reasons why this show frequently seems to work against the very population it purports to serve. Take the set: Spare, except for five black boards vertically linked by a chain, each baring in lights the name of one of the playwrights. Yes, these are big names whose participation is arguably worth boasting about, but one must wonder: Why are those names literally center-stage? And, for that matter, why aren’t any of those playwrights disabled? Is this festival not about bolstering the careers of people in the theater community with disabilities?
Despite the casting of a legally blind actor, David Rosar Stearns, the answer, it seems, is no, that in fact this is not really a festival about disability but rather a celebration of five prominent playwrights, regardless of the content or the quality of their present contributions. And that’s a shame, as strong voices addressing the lives of disabled people are badly needed in theater today. And disabled actors are in equal need of rich, complex roles to match their talents. They deserve better than Power Plays.