"Anything could've happened. Anything. " - A teacher, after an incident with one of his students.
"He's never going to get any fruit out of those puny little trees!" - A neighbor, territorial about the garden she shares with a man in her apartment building.
"I was a captive in my own home." - A landlady, explaining a conflict with two of her renters.
"It was a moment of weakness, okay? I just wanted to try something different." - A broker, after a nighttime run-in on the street.
"If she hadn't stopped by, none of this would've happened."- A bartender, blaming a romantic mix-up on her best friend.
"He'd been cursing at his beers for years, but it was different this time."- A divorced man, about his bowling partner.
These lines are from Random Acts, a new play written by Peter Owen. The play is structured in six monologues from a cross-section of New Yorkers, each of whom is making a personal statement to the police. With noir styling, the play unfolds as six short mystery stories. The characters, who are superbly portrayed by a group of talented, disciplined, and persuasive actors, never reveal too much. Thus, the audience is always kept at bay.
While it is impossible not to strain to find the truth in each character's statement, listening also becomes an exercise in understanding human psychology. People who are asked to talk about what happened, without prodding, will eventually confess. They will also lie, contradict themselves, and get creative. At some point, they will get defensive. And inevitably, they will reach the point of surrender. Or, are these complex characters simply excellent actors themselves? Is being an expert liar one of the skill sets learned from living in New York? There are no answers, only questions. And the questions are presented in a straightforward and believable packaging that makes Random Acts a thorough, well-detailed work.
The first monologue in Random Acts could be called Confessions of a Good Teacher. The teacher, played by Stephaun St. Paul, is a trim, honest-looking man who is obviously distraught. When he begins to talk, his voice registers two octaves lower than what would be expected from his slight physical build. In a deep and chocolatey tone, he begins to tell his story and the audience is hypnotized by the softness of his pleading voice. He talks with quiet frustration about a boy in his class named Russell, a 12-year-old troublemaker and bully. It is clear from the first moments of the monologue that the teacher has problems with the child and as the story unfolds, the gravity of the situation becomes terribly clear.
Later, in a moment in which the teacher repeats the same phrases over and over (a signature characteristic of Owen's effective, carefully chosen language), the teacher exposes his obvious guilt as well as his instant resentment of the events that lead to his arrest. His voice finally changes pitch from that original deep calm. In a pained, lost voice he becomes nervous and defensive. "I am doing my best, Thank you!"
The atmosphere of Random Acts is chilling. With police sirens providing a transition from one scene to the next, the concept of the piece is easily communicated right from the start. Each of the six characters in the play has been apprehended by the police separately, for different reasons. Now in the interrogation room, each one gets his chance to make a personal statement. No questions are asked, and no instructions are given. Each character sits alone in the room, staring out. Each one hesitates. Each one chatters about unrelated aspects of his story. And finally, each one spills his guts.
The performances are stark and unique. And the stories told in each monologue range from tragic to comic. Though the lighting shifts to cast a different glow over the head of each new confessor, the change is slight and does not interrupt the tense feeling of seeing the characters sitting in the spotlight with the knowledge that whatever they say will gauge the looming risk of potential punishment.
The serene barn-garage atmosphere of WAX makes for a perfect interrogation room, with its inverted seating arrangement (squeaky vintage seats rise in four rows and look down, with judgement, to the stage below), scuffed rubber dance floor, and aged wooden beam ceiling. When the garage door out front comes down, and the metal doors into the theater swing shut, the room is transformed into a sealed vault. Here, locked in, silent, the audience is ready to hear the secrets of these recently arrested subjects.
In another one of Random Acts's monologues, a petite, elfin woman in a peach sweater squares herself off at the confessor's table, and begins to talk with a slight southern lilt. She seems innocent, and her story-about her dislike for the man in the apartment downstairs, with whom she shares the backyard garden-is absurd and petty. At least, that's the way it seems before she tells her whole story, in a very entertaining performance from actress Janet Dunson. Again, as the details of the story emerge, Owen employs repetition to emphasize the degree to which the characters contradict themselves, then defend themselves. "It's my garden too. It's my garden too," the small woman insists.
The play develops its characters with subtlety and humor. Yet, the air of mystery surrounding each character never dissipates, even after the last line of each monologue is spoken. Odd comments come out of nowhere, patched in from areas of the characters's fluctuating psyches. These spontaneous comments add mountains of insight. Just as audience members begin to wonder what the truth really is and how easily a guilty conscience can be concealed with words and gestures and confessions of innocence, tiny bits information billow into major revelations. "I am a dance instructor! And I am highly respected in the dance community!" Doesn't that just explain it all away, officer? Now that you know who I really am, can't you see I couldn't possibly be guilty? Somehow, this absurd logic makes perfect sense in the right context.
The four additional monologues in Random Acts, performed by Cecelia Brooks, Craig Butta, Donna Regii, and Louis A. Velazquez, propose situations and circumstances that are as equally intriguing as the first two. And while the topics that the play presents certainly strike a chord with New Yorkers, the psychological elements and mystery make Random Acts a universally compelling work that will entice the curiosities of diverse audiences.
FW: When did you write the play?
FW: What inspired you to write it?
FW: Who were your influences?
FW: Did the actors follow the script
verbatim or is there some improvisation?
FW: Why did you choose WAX as your
Random Acts plays at WAX from October 26 through November 4, 2001. Performances are Thursday through Sunday at 8pm. WAX is located at 204 N. Seventh Street at the corner of Driggs. Please call 718.599.7997 for reservations. Tickets are also available at the door.
-- Meg Blackburn