In the first five minutes of this original, unusual and well crafted play, the Missouri-raised, Bible quoting daughter of a preacher tells us “Jesus doesn’t have much to say about actresses…” (she is one) and arrives at her audition with movie star Jake (Alex Podulke), to find he’s just slit his wrists. Yes, we see it, but the act, executed mid sentence before a table filled with headshots, is more surprising than anything else. Gotcha! Deborah calls 911.
Rocketed to international recognition playing a non-speaking superhero in successive blockbusters, Jake has been plied with an excess of everything on a silver platter. He thinks of himself as a bad actor in a meaningless profession, bereft on a scale approaching Greek tragedy. In an effort to redeem and perhaps find himself, despite no stage experience, the celebrity has agreed to play Hamlet in a limited Broadway run. Jake has approval of those playing Ophelia and Gertrude, feeling the play pivots on its women.
Deborah, who genuinely believes theater is her calling, has struggled five years in New York with little to show for it but a string of parts for which she got next to no remuneration or exposure. The actress was to audition for Ophelia. “I don’t do plays that don’t enable God’s handiwork,” she explains. Shakespeare fits that bill. At 26, she’s almost equally confident in her talent and her faith.
Jake wakes up in the hospital to find Deborah on the floor praying. He’s furious at not having been allowed to die and, railing, attempts to throw his savior out. Despite offensive language, she finds him “touching.” Missionary-like, she refuses to go. Intuiting she might just be able to help him, he offers her the part sight unseen. She won’t accept without an audition. As both want her to play the role, you’d think this might happen with alacrity. Instead, Deborah backs away. (No fool she.) Jake has to stalk/convince her. He does this with inventiveness, charm and desperation. Her eventual reading blows him away.
There are at least three on each side of the ensuing seesaw. Deborah rides up and down beside faith, ambition, and against better judgment, attraction. Jake shares his plank with self-loathing, hope, and fear. A virgin, she won’t let him touch her, yet is convinced to accompany her leading man to an award show in Los Angeles. (The event gives us the one truly romantic scene. If only…) Frustrated by patronizing from the mostly British cast and his own insecurities, Jake intermittently loses himself to inebriation and/or disappears. Each time, Deborah tends to him, talks him back. Both characters wrestle with their demons, though Deborah’s seem here to be external.
Scripture is spot-on whenever employed to explain or justify. Ontological arguments are raised at one juncture and the story contains the most inventive, amusing, theatrical Baptism I think I’ve ever seen. The few phone calls between Deborah and her father refreshingly show us the source of her grounding. Playwright Jane Martin, evidently a pseudonym, knows from whence she/he speaks. The piece also voices knowledge of the underbelly of Hollywood with a wry, biting tone. Incidents are absorbing. Humor sneaks in with effective stealth. Though the end is unsurprising, like Deborah, we’re half ready for it.
When Diane Mair addressed us, her eyes often wandered. Concentration seemed to waver. Alex Podulke’s first speeches were so emotionally uniform, I wondered whether this was to be a one note performance. The thought that the play would improve in other hands passed through my mind. Then something changed. I can’t put my finger on what provoked it exactly, but suddenly the production kicked in and both actors authentically rose to the occasion. Though Podulke’s Shakespeare is better than Mair’s, the two-hander is mostly well balanced. Agitated chemistry is palpable. We question neither Deborah’s belief system nor Jake’s epic agony.
Director West Hyler does a bang up job with 90% of this production, but to my mind, doesn’t vary the level of Jake’s anger quite enough. At this consistency, the character would’ve had a heart attack. (Deborah convincingly erupts and recedes.) The piece is well paced, immensely focused, and physically arresting. Both spot-lit monologues and Mair’s speaking as her costume is being changed before us, work well to keep action fluid, mood unbroken. Deborah’s internal conflict emerges like screeching brakes. Fight Choreography by Ron Piretti is some of the most roughly credible I’ve seen. One winces. David Arsenault’s (Scenic Design) free standing door is immensely effective.
A fascinating play.
Seth Freeman Photography
Ground Up Productions presents
H20 by Jane Martin
Featuring Diane Mair & Alex Podulke
Directed by West Hyler
59E 59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street
Through December 13, 2015