Wednesday, May 23, 2018

14 (2018-2019): Review: TREMOR (seen May 22, 2018)

"Peeling the Onion"

Brad Birch’s mostly compelling one-act, Tremor, is one of those onion-like plays in which the playwright keeps peeling back one layer after the other until he gets to the core, presumably at the very end. In Tremor, however, the head-scratching conclusion of this otherwise flavorful onion seems to belong to some other dramatic veggie; it’s more likely to leave a confounding aftertaste than to aid your theatergoing digestion.

Lisa Diveney. Photo: Mark Douet.
Like a number of plays I’ve seen over the past two weeks Tremor—a visitor from the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff, Wales, which is part of 59E59 Theaters’ Brits Off Broadway 2018 festival—looks at the traumatic aftereffects of a catastrophe on a small number of survivors. Here, those survivors are Sophie (Lisa Diveney) and Tom (Paul Rattray, Harald Karstark on Game of Thrones), a thirtyish couple whose romantic relationship ended in the aftermath of a bus crash four years earlier; it killed 32 people but left seven—including Sophie, Tom, and the driver—alive.
Paul Rattray, Lisa Diveney. Photo: Mark Douet.
When the play begins, Sophie has just shown up, unannounced, at Tom’s house, where he’s begun a new life, having married, had a child, and begun a business by selling things online; it’s a job that insulates him from the necessity of having to deal with people face to face. These facts slowly emerge as the skins peel off and we learn, not only about the accident but why Tom is ill at ease in Sophie’s presence, and why she’s chosen to visit him.

While Birch feeds our hunger for the specifics of what happened by sprinkling them like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, the substance of his 65-minute play is essentially a debate between two people trying to come to terms with their reactions to the life-changing disaster that separated them. Precipitating their discussion is Sophie’s revelation that the bus driver is dying of cancer and seeking forgiveness.
Paul Rattray. Photo: Mark Douet.
From this seed sprouts a contentious and heart-wrenching dispute during which a host of emotional and political issues are raised, including forgiveness, justice, the judicial system, the media, guilt, xenophobia, terrorism, and Islamophobia. While much of this sounds primarily UK-instigated, many of its darts strike at American sensibilities as well.
Lisa Diveney. Photo: Mark Douet.
For every reason Sophie puts forth to support her viewpoints, Tom responds with equally cogent and, sometimes, surprising counterarguments. While the play’s multiple issues may sound like playwriting overkill, Birch juggles them sufficiently well to hold our interest if not necessarily to convince us one way or the other about any of them.

The actors, directed by David Mercatali, have nowhere to hide as they pace around on a set by Hayley Grindle that’s little more than a whitish-gray circle resembling the surface of the moon, with only a child’s toy or two, and nary a piece of furniture to cling to or sit on.
Lisa Diveney, Paul Rattray. Photo: Mark Douet.
Rattray, a pleasant-looking guy with a rich Welsh accent, and Diveney, a slender, pretty woman, are fully invested in their roles, regardless of the audience in the tiny venue being only inches away. Their initial insecurities about seeing each other again, and their mutual wariness, evolve into an impassioned questioning and defense of their beliefs.

But no response is afforded Tom’s closing speech. In it, he moves the debate in an unforeseen direction, attributing the tragedy to a cause that, instead of eliciting a rebuttal, offers the puzzling image of Tom bathed in golden light while stretching his arms out like the statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio de Janeiro. This is one dramaturgic tremor Tremor could well do without.


59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through June 10