Sunday, June 24, 2018

36 (2018): Review: A BLANKET OF DUST (seen June 22, 2018)


Richard Squires’s A Blanket of Dust is the newest addition to the small but slowly growing list of plays about the World Trade Center attack of 9/11. Like its predecessors, it’s heartfelt but inadequate. A partial list, offered here, which misses Bikeman and a one-act, “The Sentinels,” gives an idea of the angles various playwrights have used in tackling a subject whose tragic enormity needs the vision of a Tony Kushner to draw great drama from it. 

The Flea Theatre, now on Thomas Street, is only blocks away from the actual events but, apart from the play’s first few minutes, the poignancy of that proximity quickly fades as the action devolves into an implausible drama based on a questionable argument and filled with sturm und drang. During those early minutes, a woman named Diane Crane (Angela Pierce, Oslo) engages in a fraught phone call with her husband, Sam, whose voice we hear calling from the North Tower after it’s been hit. This is a promising scene, showing Squires’s ability to create dramatic tension, but what follows diminishes rather than enlarges the significance of the disaster. 
Angela Pierce, James Patrick Nelson. Photo: Sharon Kinsella.
Diane is the daughter of liberal US Senator Walter Crane (Anthony Newfield) and his well-put-together wife, Vanessa (Alison Fraser, a standout in First Daughter Suite), and sister of Washington Post journalist Charlie Crane (James Patrick Nelson). Distraught over the loss of her loving husband, she soon buys into the conspiracy theory that—based on allegedly scientific evidence—the attack on the twin towers was not the work of foreign terrorists. Instead, it was carried out by agents of the US government as part of a plan to amp up its Islamophobic agenda in the Middle East.
Anthony Newfield, Alison Fraser. Photo: Remy.
Diane’s beliefs, which intensify over a period of twenty years as she relentlessly determines to uncover her husband’s murderers, eventually put her in conflict with dark forces, such as the FBI (Kelsey Rainwater and Peter J. Romano) and former CIA director Adam Black (Brad Bellamy) and his wife, Esther (Peggy J. Scott). The Blacks’ son, Andrew (Tommy Schrider), a political activist-bookstore owner-entertainer who shares Diane’s views, becomes her lover, and, in an act of political defiance, immolates himself in front of the White House. I presume we’re supposed to consider this a courageous response to the powers-that-be.

By the end of the episodic, hour and a half play, Diane, who is framed as a modern Antigone, will post a declaration of "J'Accuse" before performing an act of self-sacrifice in the name of her cause. Antigone fights the state (Creon) for an established filial principle; Diane is a would-be martyr for a belief I suspect most audiences will consider nuts, even those still furious about the possibility that the Bush administration deviously manipulated 9/11 to provide a reason to invade Iraq.

Her choice is not only unlikely to change the dynamic against which she's been protesting for 20 years but also will do nothing to find those she considered responsible for Sam's death. The more one thinks about it, the crazier it becomes. As Melanie McFarland notes in her Salon review of TV's "Westworld": "The problem with kamikaze acts is that those who commit them don't get to see if their mission succeeds."
Tommy Schrider. Photo: Sharon Kinsella.
If you’re inclined to accept deep state theories and the notion that what happened on September 11, 2001, was not the work of Islamic terrorists but something carried out by neo-cons needing a reason to go to war, you may find A Blanket of Dust a brave attempt to speak to your concerns. If you believe such theories are total B.S. made up by trolls who fantasize the worst scenarios in order to satisfy their complete lack of faith in governmental integrity (a conviction not without merit), you’ll find it impossible to lend credence to the plot and characters. And if you’re undecided, you may think there’s at least a smidgen of something to ponder in Diane and Andrew’s claims, even if the play in which they’re embedded is otherwise unpersuasive.

Regardless, once the play’s central question is established, it fails to develop in a sufficiently compelling way, going over and over the same thing as one brick wall rears up behind the other in Diane’s quest. Ultimately, Andrew and Diane’s fates seem more like dramatic contrivances than organic necessities, making it impossible to either sympathize with or condone their choices.

Daisy Long’s multi-cued lighting, which uses multiple fluorescent light tubes on the black stage right wall, is unable to compensate adequately for Brendan Boston’s blandly antiseptic setting, equipped with half-a-dozen white, wooden chairs backed by a tall, hospital-like white curtain, and a door set into a piece of wall. The shoestring production does everything it can to deny the action a sense of place or atmosphere.

And, while most of Christopher Metzger’s costumes are acceptable (albeit showing no obvious concession to two decades of style changes), Diane’s awkward outfit of cropped pants, ankle boots, black and white-striped over-blouse, and poorly matched, poncho-like jacket doesn’t do her any favors in the style department.
Angela Pierce. Photo: Sharon Kinsella.
Director Christopher Murrah provides some momentarily interesting theatrical touches but his ensemble never fully succeeds in making a case for the plot’s reality. Angela Pierce offers a professional stab at creating something real from a credibility-challenged role, and most of the supporting cast, burdened with one-dimensional roles, are satisfactory; disappointingly, two-time Tony nominee Alison Fraser, delivers her Southern (?) accented lines with a clenched jaw that makes her sometimes sound like she has a mouth full of molasses.
Alison Fraser. Photo: Jonathan Slaff.
Several reviews have called A Blanket of Dust thought provoking. That it is, although the thoughts provoked may not be the intended ones.


Flea Theater
20 Thomas St., NYC
Through June 30