Paul David Young’s new play, In the Summer Pavilion, is sparsely written and directed, which might have worked to its advantage, had it not been sparse in substance as well. When the play begins, the audience looks upon Ben (Ryan Barry) reciting a spoken word poem in which he wallows in his own despair and disillusionment. He also tries – successfully, I might add – to disconcert his audience: “The doors are locked/There’s no intermission/We’ll let you go when you’re ready.” It’s probably not the best way for a character to introduce a play, to convince us that we will want to leave the theater even though we won’t be able to. Or maybe it’s just the playwright hinting at the mediocrity of his own work—who knows? And what’s more, who cares?
The play’s three characters are situated in a Maine summerhouse after having graduated from Princeton one year earlier. All three are repeatedly hurtled forward in time to see multiple selves and futures, and the audience bears witness to an ever-changing love triangle. In one version, Ben is a PhD candidate at Columbia, married to Clarissa (Rachel Mewbron); Nabile (Meena Dimian) visits them in their New York apartment and, while Clarissa is in the kitchen, makes a pass at a tempted but ultimately unwilling Ben. In another version, Nabile is married to a pregnant Clarissa, and it is Ben, this time, who intrudes into the happy couple’s life, and makes an unwanted, unreciprocated advance on Clarissa. In each and every version, two of the three characters are in an intimate relationship, which necessarily means that the third person is excluded.
It’s exhausting after a while, and the play is only 75 minutes long. Each new scenario is presented as a sexual rivalry with a different and presumably more exciting twist. But in the play’s opening scene, Young also conveys the three characters’ platonic comradery: their drunken, drug-addled buffoonery and playfulness. The playwright might have done well to further explore that aspect of their relationship. After all, the three of them started out as friends, and their platonic interactions should hold equal weight. Young instead puts all of his stock into the “sex sells” adage, and turns his play into a series of perverse imaginings.
Young’s play begins to follow a predictable pattern: Ben becomes the default pariah in almost every scenario and turns to drugs and alcohol because of his repeated disappointments. Ben’s downward spiral may come as no surprise, but what really comes out of left field is his proclamation against capitalism: “Private property is where it begins, the whole system of capitalist oppression, the dominance of the media and information systems by the ruling classes, the internet.” These are, of course, the musings of a madman, but it seems that both the actor and playwright would like for us to take these remarks seriously. So a play that initially presents itself as a collection of lurid fantasies is really a critique of capitalism? This might have made sense, actually, insofar as sexual relationships often hinge upon power and ownership, but the play itself – the text, that is – never supports this message until Ben’s unexpected outcry.
The play ends where it began, with Ben reciting his morbid poem, and with Clarissa coming at Ben from behind, on the porch of the Maine summerhouse. “I’m the same as I always was,” Ben tells Clarissa. “You’re the one who changed.” This is probably Young’s failed and final attempt to give his play some semblance of unity, but the play never achieves unity because, as Ben suggests, he hasn’t changed. Neither has Clarissa, or Nabile, for that matter. And so rather than coming full circle, the play and its characters seem to travel along a static and repetitious, not to mention boringly straight line.
Photos by Gerry Goodstein
1. Ryan Barry, Rachel Mewbron, Meena Dimian
2. Meena Dimian, Rachel Mewbron
3. Meena Dimian, Rachel Mewbron
4. Ryan Barry
In the Summer Pavilion
59 East 59th Street
Through November 3, 2012