Tuesday, October 1, 2019

80 (2019-2020): Review: SUNDAY (seen September 28, 2019)

"Here's Booking at You"

“Is no-one else fucking bored?” asks a character midway through Sunday, British playwright Jack Thorne’s (the Tony-winning Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) often desultory exercise in Gen-Z, self-pitying, navel gazing, getting its world premiere at the Atlantic Theatre Company. It’s a dangerous line because many spectators are likely to be shouting in the affirmative, if only in their heads.
Maurice Jones, Sadie Scott. All photos: Monique Carboni.
Sunday is directed and choreographed by Lee Sunday Evans (no relation) at a just-about audible level and with a sleepy energy that periodically erupts in herky-jerky bursts of dancing to Daniel Kluger's thumpingly rhythmic music, the main purpose of which seems to be to rescue us from Morpheus’ grip. It's set in a New York apartment shared by two attractive young women, friends from college, who hold low-level jobs in publishing. They're Marie (Sadie Scott), white, and Jill (Juliana Canfield), black. The women's passion for reading (mainly Marie’s) is represented in Brett J. Banakis’s spare setting, dominated by a mountain of books, sturdily arranged so that, in a couple of visually effective moments, they can actually be climbed without toppling.
zane Pais, Juliana Canfield, Ruby Frankel, Sadie Scott, Christian Strange. 
As in so many recent sets, the exposed brick walls of the stage area—usually faux but nonetheless realistic—provide a neutral background for furnishings spread across the acting area in a style someone calls “sloppy chic.” A kitchen is at stage left and beds are up right and left. A freestanding door, right, is the portal through which pass the play’s seven characters. Masha Tsimring's evocative lighting does much to pull it all together, while Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene's quotidian costumes do their job effectively.
Christian Strange, Sadie Scott, Ruby Frankel, Zane Pais, Juliana Canfield.
One character, Alice (Ruby Frankel), a lesbian, sometimes sits or stands in a niche high up on the back wall. She both participates in the situations as herself and—almost as if she were a novelist writing the play we’re watching—delivers expository narratives in which she comments on what and who we’re watching. None of this furthers the action, and most of it seems irrelevant, particularly at the end when she presents a detailed account of what happened to the characters we’ve met in the years afterward. Logically, this would mean she’s talking to us from the mid-21st century, the mundanity of her comments suggesting that, regardless of how these people lived and died, the future otherwise is not much different than the present.
Christian Strange, Sadie Scott, Ruby Frankel, Zane Pais. 
Sunday is practically two loosely joined plays, the first beginning when a black neighbor, Bill (Maurice Jones), in his late 30s, comes to the door to request that when Marie’s friends gather in her apartment, they keep the noise down because he needs his Sunday night sleep. Those friends, in addition to Alice, Marie, and Jill, are Jill’s boyfriend, the privileged, wealthy Milo (Zane Pais), and his black friend, Keith (Christian Strange), a middle-class guy who had a scholarship at Milo’s elite school. All postgrads, they’re here for one of their weekly book club discussions, this one focusing on Ann Tyler’s once-popular, 1982 novel, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. 

Oddly, in this period of electronic readers, the medium of choice, as represented by the scenic pile, remains the printed book. As anyone familiar with Gen-Z readers knows, the preferred delivery system among them is electronic. Even with two characters working in publishing, not a word is spent on the changing modes of publication in the digital age, nor does a single Kindle reader make itself known.
Sadie Scott, Zane:Pais, Ruby Frankel, Juliana Canfield.
The group, it should be noted, has pledged not to mention Donald Trump, but one bit is nonetheless devoted to repetions of his name. Perhaps that's because its mere mention perks up New York audience ears, the way the mention of New Jersey nowadays does when a cheap laugh is sought. The friends divide their interest between chatter about the novel and their drinking, drugging, snacking, and interpersonal distractions, which eventually tie into the novel’s themes.

As Alice tries steering the conversation toward the book, Keith insists on following his own track, leading to hypothetical scenarios based on Quora-like questions. This involves things like talk about morality and trust, or nostalgia for their only recently lost childhoods. The principal subject, toxic masculinity, bleeds into talk about the characters in the novel.
Ruby Frankel, Juliana Canfield, Zane Pais, Sadie Scott.
I wish I could say that you don’t have to know Tyler’s book to appreciate the discourse but that would be incorrect. I never read it, and had zero interest in hearing these not particularly interesting people analyze it, often vaguely, especially in ways meant to reflect how the group embodies its themes. Milo, for example, apparently represents Tyler’s depiction of toxic masculinity. After the friends depart, leaving Marie alone (Jill has left to stay at Milo’s, as she often does), Bill returns and play number two ensues.
Zane Pais, Chriswtian Strange, Ruby Frankel.
A gentle, reserved, depressive, he feels intellectually inferior to the well-educated but painfully lonely, self-doubting Marie, but nevertheless engages us in what evolves into an odd-couple love scene. His reticence to welcome Marie’s surprisingly frank sexual aggressiveness almost seems intended as a rebuttal of the toxic masculinity discussed earlier.  The delicately acted scene, which some have compared to Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, shows us a much more engaging drama than the plotless, self-indulgence that occupies Sunday’s first part. 
Maurice Jones, Zane Pais, Sadie Scott, Juliana Canfield, Christian Strange.
Overall, Sunday’s lowkey, nuanced acting is believably naturalistic. However, apart from the Bill-Marie encounter that closes the play, and a few scattered moments in the book club scenes, there’s not enough here make us care about the characters, their preoccupations, or their ideas. I won’t repeat the line that opened this review but by now you surely know the answer.
Zane Pais, Ruby Frankel, Sadie Scott.

Atlantic Theater Company
336 W. 20th St., NYC
Through October 13