Friday, March 13, 2015

172 (2014-2015): C.O.A.L. (Confessions of a Liar) (March 12, 2015)

“"Clovis Believed That if a Lie Was Worth Telling, It Was Worth Telling Well: Saki"

David Brian Colbert’s, C.O.AL. (Confessions of a Liar), smartly directed by Craig Baldwin in the tiny Theater C black box at 59E59 Theaters, is a cleverly written, 80-minute play about the lies we all tell and how one person in particular chose to build his life around them. It’s set in the fictional West Virginia mining town of Coley Bridge, accessible only by an impressive valley-crossing span. As in most such places, we’re told, there’s a rigid class structure separating those with long, traditional ties to the place, those with new money who’ve bought their way into social respectability, and those outsiders (especially if they’re from above the Mason-Dixon line) who arrived because the town happened to be where the work was. The latter are likely to be denigrated as "ghetto trash."
Jackson Tanner, Lisa Bostnar. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The memory-based narrative—much of it delivered in the first person—is presented by a boy named Coal, who’s played by a four-actor ensemble, with his words divided among them. They also play the other town characters, including the boy’s mother, his teacher, a boy named Jimmy Maloney, Jimmy’s mother, Coal’s dad, and Mr. Flowers, Coal’s swim coach. The younger actors are the fresh-faced Jackson Tanner and the petite African-American Mirirai Sithole. Somewhat older, and playing the mature roles, are the statuesque Lisa Bostnar and the playwright, Mr. Colbert. Mr. Colbert, who's white, was standing in for the African-American Evander Duck at the performance I saw. The racial difference is important, since the script declares that Coal is biracial. 

Mr. Colbert wants his mixed company to represent Coal’s multiple aspects as he viewed himself at any given time; however, apart from the theatrical interest it provides, the gender, racial, and age differences such casting might suggest never come into focus. It’s enough of a challenge for the audience to decide who’s talking at any time; deconstructing the play for clues as to elements in Coal’s personality based on which actor is saying his lines is too much to ask, even if it were possible.
Jackson Tanner, Mirirai Sithole. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Set in the 1980s, C.O.A.L., which is both stylistically and thematically reminiscent of Paula Vogel’s HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE, is Coal’s recounting of his experiences growing up in Coley Bridge, where he learned as early as age six the power of lying as a way of navigating life’s difficulties in school and at home. His alcoholic Vietnam veteran father and his Jesus-following mother moved here from Baltimore. Coal (a fake name symbolic of the character’s predilection for lying) is beaten regularly (he also gets a nasty spanking from his parochial school teacher). When he asks tricky questions of his parents, they offer evasive answers. His father, asked what an “allowance” is by his six-year-old son, responds: “Allowance is a silly thing that rich people believe they have to do to get their kids to obey. . . . They obviously aren’t good enough parents to have rules without bribery.” Coal quickly learns that lying can be a form of armor, especially if he can master its demands. The trick, he says, isn’t “NOT to lie, but how to lie BETTER.”
Jackson Tanner, Mirirai Sithole, Lisa Bostnar. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Coal finds a refuge on the swim team, where his competitive swimming skills become a vital part of his life. The experience also introduces in Coach Flowers—from one of the town’s wealthiest and most powerful families—the presence of pedophilia. This, combined with Coal’s relationship to his socially elevated rival, Jimmy Maloney, escalates into major league dishonesty, eventually resulting in his biggest lie of all, which leads to tragedy. This is why Coal, years later, is now telling us his story.
Mirirai Sithole, Jackson Tanner. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Throughout, as Coal reveals the lies he told, we also see how people in general distort the truth for their own reasons, often as an essential way of coping with everyday necessity. Some of this brings to mind the way Molière, in THE MISANTHROPE, satirizes people who fudge the truth in social interactions. Telling the truth is usually too much trouble. One of the play’s best (and funniest) scenes shows Coal and his mother driving in their car, with Coal intensely interrogating his increasingly frustrated mother about Jesus and sin, as she’s forced to concoct one untruth after the other to answer his probing questions.

The cast is uniformly good, moving briskly through the episodic structure, speaking in believable West Virginia accents, and altering their behavior just enough to let us recognize which character they’re playing. Mr. Baldwin’s set, or what there is of it, is merely a silhouette of the West Virginia mountains painted on the walls, with a large screen in one corner onto which images of the small town environment, selected by Luke Norby (who’s also responsible for the atmospheric sound design), are projected. For furniture, three red wooden chairs do yeoman service.

In its small-scale, low-budget way, C.O.A.L. (Confessions of a Liar) is a respectable contribution to the theatre season. And that’s the God’s honest truth. 

59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59 Street. NYC
Through March 22

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