Thursday, November 21, 2013

At last, a good new play

Alex Pollock and Brandon Whitehead in Windowmen.

After my recent cri de coeur over the sad state of the season's new plays, I felt I owed it to myself to check out Steven Barkhimer's Windowmen (at the Boston Playwrights Theatre through this weekend), which everyone has been saying is by far the best of the seasonal bunch.

And I'm happy to report they're right: it is the best of the bunch. Not that it's much of a bunch; but honestly, Barkhimer's script would lead a much stronger pack. His man-cave valentine to the Fulton Fish Market is much indebted to Mamet (it's based, like Glengarry Glen Ross, on its author's youthful sojourn in a professional shark tank), but Barkhimer carves out his own artistic and moral space in a way that Theresa Rebeck failed to do in her feminized Mamet derivative, Mauritius. Perhaps most importantly, Barkhimer actually manages to (mostly) juggle more than one theme simultaneously, all while maintaining forward momentum, and polishing his dialogue to a high gloss. The icing on the cake is that the energetic cast at Boston Playwrights, under the detailed direction of Brett Marks, proves as sterling as the script.

The real surprise, though, is that the brightest light onstage is newcomer Brandon Whitehead, a burly guy who pretty much steals the show right out from under a quartet of leading Boston actors (Will Lyman, Nael Nacer, Daniel Berger-Jones, and Alex Pollock), who all give him a run for his money but can never quite catch up to the pace of his performance. To be fair, Whitehead also has the best part; Barkhimer has lavished the lion's share of his attention on Vic, the key player behind the fish market's distribution window (hence the rather meh title, I guess) who matches incoming orders to outgoing shipments, and then counts up all the cash.

Perhaps you can already guess the "Mamet angle" in this scenario.  Yes, somehow in the controlled chaos over which Vic presides, cash has been leaking from the till, and owner Al (a fierce Will Lyman) is none too happy about that.  Al's efforts to get to the bottom of the fishy business at his fish market inevitably impacts the apprenticeship of callow, college-educated Ken (Alex Pollock), who is obviously Barkhimer's self-portrait, but who oddly is painted with less color than his blue-collar buddies.

Barkhimer's sympathy with his comrades-in-arms, however, may be what keeps Windowmen from turning into Glengarry Glen Scrod.  His fish market is hardly a shark tank, and while there's plenty of bluster on hand, there's little blood in the water until the finale.  Indeed, Barkhimer expertly limns various forms of dishonesty (for it turns out Ken, like the man who created him, is a quick study) as well as the moral weight of each grade.  And on this sliding scale, Vic, though hardly at the top, is also nowhere near the bottom. Essentially good-natured, and far smarter than most of his overlords - but also aware that accidents of class and comportment have forever killed any hopes he might have had for a career -Vic is quite a memorable comic and dramatic creation, and with his flawed-but-benign presence at its center, Barkhimer's script slowly turns into a meditation on how much honor can really exist among thieves, and how the more-innocent can be saved while the less-innocent get theirs.

The playwright for the most part expertly develops this deepening moral dimension in his action, all while convincingly evoking the hectic demands of the fish market, as well as the balls-out patois of its denizens. Although I could still see Windowmen going through one more round of development - mostly to morally complicate its third act, in which Al's relentless, reductive search for "truth" is sometimes conflated with a slightly forced discussion of platonism (Ken was - surprise, surprise - a philosophy major). The trouble here is that unfortunately, Al is more of an asshole than he realizes (after all, the boss always throws the longest shadow in Plato's cave, doesn't he) and it would be nice if Barkhimer could find a way to give this self-serious puppetmaster his own comeuppance.  There are other gaps in the script - one episode (Ken's mugging), doesn't feel as tied to the main action as it might be, for instance.

But generally the ride here is smooth and gripping, and Whitehead provides a performance that's not only hilarious but utterly lived-in and convincing.  Pollock, for his part, makes a subtle Ken, but I felt the young man's arc toward personal resilience could have been slightly more pronounced. Meanwhile Nael Nacer is hardly stretched by the role of Rocco, a fast-talking would-be conman - but it was good for once to see him not blinking back tears every minute. Likewise Daniel Berger-Jones wasn't firing on all cylinders as the actual villain of the piece - his performance should grow slightly darker as the final act proceeds - but again this is basically a quibble.

The only real question about the production at this point is how it will find a larger audience. (I doubt the weekend's performances at the intimate Playwrights Theatre will meet demand.) If you ask me, Windowmen would be a natural for one of the Huntington's slots at the Calderwood - although I've also heard some overtures have already been made to venues in New York. That would be great news, of course, but I would still hope a larger hometown crowd could see this hometown cast in what I also hope is only the first step in a developing hometown career for Barkhimer.

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