The People’s Improv Theatre is known chiefly as one of New York City’s four major comedy theaters—alongside the Upright Citizens Brigade, the Magnet, and the Annoyance—but the eclectic midtown venue might really be more of an Ars Nova. Amidst the wealth of improv, standup and sketch the PIT produces nightly, across three stages, are dramatic offerings on par with anything by the city’s scrappier form-bending collectives—the Debate Society, say, or New Saloon. Room 4, a devious one-act now running on the theatre’s Striker Stage, is a testament to the truth that serious messages are often best delivered in silly forms.
Not that Room 4 is, exactly, silly. Perhaps “loopy” is a better word. Written by the PIT’s resident playwrights Niccolo Aeed and Marina Tempelsman, who work under the moniker Marina and Nicco, the play blends Groundhog Day and No Exit into a blistering critique of the entertainment industry. The play strands its protagonists, black actors sick of playing the same stereotypes, in an audition room, this one for the “Friend of Drug Dealer” role in a network procedural. Unlike Sartre’s characters, these four (Anthony Franqui, Tristan Griffin, Ryan Johnson, and Eric Lockley) are able to leave the room—but only to immediately return for the same audition, the same patronizing casting assistant, the same small talk about all their peers who’ve been cast in The Lion King.
It’s a clever and effective marriage of form to content, made all the more effective by Aeed and Tempelsman’s willingness to toy with the conceit. The time loop format could easily become a redundant straight man routine, with one actor desperately struggling to convince the others that, er, stranger things are afoot. Thankfully these actors catch on quickly, though that seems to be the point. They’ve been in a time loop for their entire careers, confined to identical roles in identical scenes in identical films, series and commercials. Room 4’s greatest strength is not in its structure but in its willingness to abandon that structure. A scene late in the play imagines the show-within-a-show’s white casting directors as sock puppets, mouthpieces of an industry that too often turns a blind eye to its own prejudices. It’s a dazzling sequence performed with captivating verve by Richard Armstead and Temesgen Tocruray, the latter of whom doubles as a wise old janitor who naturally appears from nowhere to advise Room 4’s protagonists. Similarly exciting is the scene where, perhaps, they finally escape their metaphysical prison—though I won’t spoil how that plays out, except to say it contains the funniest and aptest critique of Star Wars I’ve heard in recent memory.
Room 4 is a short play, clocking just over an hour. But short does not mean slight. Aeed and Tempelsman are sketch comedians skilled at the art of getting in, saying what you have to say, and getting out. No idea is repeated without being escalated, and longer scenes are usually buttressed by shorter, dynamic interludes—for instance, a choral sequence in which the protagonists simultaneous audition for four stereotypical black roles, including a football player and a… fast food consumer. Too many plays try so hard to say something serious that they cannot be taken seriously at all. Room 4, quite unlike the casting directors it skewers, knows exactly when to shut up.