A Great Big Recession 

At the very center of The Great Recession, at The Flea Theater (through December 30th), is the idea of economic hardship and the various ways that this event is affecting the lives of young people in the United States. The production consists of six plays commissioned by the Artistic Director of the Flea, Jim Simpson, about a year ago when, as he writes in the program note, he noticed the "financial world begin to unravel." Though the meat of the plays are wrapped around similar unprosperous bones, the outward appearance of each couldn't be more different from the next. The treatment of the idea by the writers and directors is testament to the diversity in contemporary Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater and offers a refreshing insight into the state of young theater today, the theater of tomorrow. And although each play dealt with how young people are dealing with the recession, the six plays became more about the people affected, and not necessarily the effects; how different strata of society are feeling this ebb and flow, and sometimes asking, jarringly, just how badly the recession has hurt the country. Is the depression as real and devastating as "they" say it is or are we just reacting to the loss of an inflated sense of welfare and financial security?

The playwrights involved deal with everything from a heart-stopping reality show-like agit prop piece (How far will you go to pay the rent?), to imagining the current recession as post-apocalypse, to disgust-inducing parody about privileged post-grads and unfulfilled trips to Europe. The beauty of this outing is that the recession can be all these things, and many more as well, to many different kinds of people (ok, maybe the apocalypse is a bit far-fetched, but maybe not), and yet there's a well-struck balance between outright cynicism and sarcasm, and a more calculated severity and seriousness. With six shorts, none harps for too long on any one trope of stereotypically hard times and focus instead on the people involved in experiencing them. There are a few moments in the production that border on a sort of holiday nostalgia and sap that I could have probably done with out, but the total effect was absolutely captivating and left me wanting more. If the recession has affected you in any way, you must go see this play—and if nothing else, they sell Keystone Light cans for a dollar at intermission, so it's the cheapest beer in town.

The first play in the set, Classic Kitchen Timer, written and directed by Adam Rapp, definitely gets my vote for the most invigorating short of the evening. The play begins when you walk in to the theater, with the Host (played by Nick Maccarone in an obvious, yet gratifying nod to Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight; he's fresh from Columbia, his first performance, remember this name), greeting you and making you feel at home, despite his menacing red and white face paint and tan uniform with black suspenders. He could be a clown from the Hitler Youth. He even came right up to me and asked where I was from, and we had a nice little conversation. The point of all this pandering is to make what follows all the more nerve rattling and agitating, as we find that much like the Joker, the Host is not a very nice guy at all, and is interested in human suffering and studying the things people will do for money.

Sarah Ellen Stephens (played by Lucy Norwood) is downstage looking depressed and squirmy in the spotlight with a baby carriage behind her while a camera man (dressed similarly to the host) is filming her and the audience. The Host begins to interview her, and we find out among other things that she is sick, she has lost her job, she can no longer afford her medicine, and she has come to New York to kill a baby for $25,000, unless, of course somebody from the audience will stop her, and kill her, making their subsequent pay out double the original offer. Add to this the audibly ticking kitchen timer of the title counting down from 12 minutes, and Sarah waving a knife, partly losing her mind, directly at the audience, challenging someone to stop her. The intensity is apparent in the air, and I know the front row was scared, because you enter the theater across the stage—Sarah effectively cuts off all the exits. If it were real, what would you do?

Charles Dettbarn (played by a gruff, flannel wearing, Robert Grant) springs forward suddenly from the audience at the last minute and battles Sarah, killing her loudly and the cycle begins again, with him in the chair where she started and effectively saving the baby—but what's to stop the Host from offering Charles the same deal? Though this scenario, clearly culled from innumerable precedents, is a little over the top, the underlying commentary about the actions that people who fall on hard times will do for money is frighteningly a propos of the current situation. After all, self preservation is a paramount motivation of the human race, and with all the crazy people out there, why couldn't this be real? The tension reaches a breaking point during the death of Sarah, while more uniformed Hitler Youth clowns jump from the audience and begin to chant a call-and-response creed, led by the Host, with lines like "We will not accept your 401k plan" and "We will take extreme action in exposing the anal warts of social injustice and corporate oppression by any means necessary." Desperation is a theme that makes this play more of a horror than anything else, but losing your job and not being able to pay your bills, or get the medicine to save your life, in any time, recession or not, is a very scary thing indeed.

click to enlarge The Great Recession at the Flea Theater

The next play in the series is called Fucked and despite the severity of the title, it is a complete counterpoint from the tone and subject matter of Kitchen Timer, in so many ways that one half expects the Host to come back out and start killing these new actors. The play is written by Itamar Moses and focuses on two Upper East Side post grads who have been dating for a while, have their first apartment together, and are kind of, sort of thinking about marriage. Cindy (played by Jessica Pohly) and Reed (Dorien Makhloghi) are going on a trip to Europe courtesy Reed's Dad, as an after college gift, and are also having a silly fight about when Reed started to "think" he might want to break up with Cindy—or, you know, take some time apart (single in Europe, dude!). Cindy storms out dramatically just as Reed's father a trader in the commodities market, calls and says the trip is off because he just lost his fortune in the crash. Cindy and Reed's privileged positions contrast so starkly with the previous dramatic offering that the result is infuriating. After seeing the conditions of the opposite tax bracket (killing babies for money and whatnot), this story seems preposterous and ultimately just doesn't matter—who cares? But the piece's sequencing in the evening's line up is crucial, and offers an answer to a larger question. The recession affects all sorts of people despite class, and although it does not seem to be a defense of the privileged class, the mere mention of it is enough to get us thinking about society as a whole and how fucked this whole division of wealth thing really is.

Recess by Sheila Callaghan is the fifth play in the program and the most elaborate, but well worth mentioning because of its satiric treatment of the recession. Callaghan imagines economic depravation as a dark period in human history following "the crash" as if the financial troubles of our times were truly apocalyptic. The play centers on a rag-tag band of misfits holed up in a room, hungry, all dying and in pain, waiting for something, anything, to happen. One of the group (Pohly) lies dead on the floor, blood pooling around her head; another writes furiously in a notebook; others still have sex behind a curtain in the background; Eric (Stephen Stout) screams: "I was a father before the crash!"; later two of the others get into an argument over food scraps. The coterie come across some Tofu Pups, and all those still alive get to eat about an inch of fake meat. The play ends with the whole bunch singing Bowie's "Life on Mars" a-capella, in slow, monotone voices. It's a truly beautiful moment that gave me goose bumps. Seeing something as atrocious as the recession as imagined by Callaghan made me feel a whole hell of a lot better about the actual recession as reported by The News. The apocalypse hasn't happened, after all, and are things really as bad as everyone says?

The Great Recession as a whole is a whirlwind night of theater and a preposterous and serious adventure into the contemporary American predicament, real or imagined, murderous or holidaying in Europe. The dichotomy of morbid and flippant subject material is grounded by the exaggeration of all the sentiments involved and makes for an enjoyably up and down evening. All the playwrights involved seemed to be reaching for the extremes of this moment in history, and their visions attempted to accurately depict the routes that the course of events might have taken, and still might take. The Bats, the company at the Flea, are a joy to watch and their ranks are filled with youthful players who are clearly having a really good time on the stage. The excitement in their performances shows through and makes this ambitious outing a success. There's happiness in their performances, to be participating in great theater, despite detracting diegetic mentions of acting being a "crap job anyway," and somewhat patronizing human interest pieces in the L.A. Times. But perhaps the most interesting and exciting lesson theater lovers will take from the evening is that whatever form this crash takes and no matter how hard or how lightly it smacks the arts in the face, despite it all, amazing new theater is still getting produced, which really does make this a great recession.

(photo credit: Ryan Jensen)

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