Meg MacCary and Piter Marek in What Then
(Photo © Carl Skutsch)
Meg MacCary and Piter Marek in What Then
(Photo © Carl Skutsch)
Diane has a dream job -- literally. When she goes to sleep, the former accountant embarks upon her new career as an architect. She's currently working on a low-income housing complex with a tomato garden that can remove the toxicity in the soil. The line between fantasy and reality blurs in Rinne Groff's imaginative new play What Then, an off-kilter family drama set in a semi-apocalyptic near future.

When Diane (Meg MacCary) announces her new line of employment to her husband Tom (Andrew Dolan), he naturally thinks she's either gone crazy or is trying to "guilt trip" him. "I have a clear conscience," she says, explaining the reason that she is able to sleep for such prolonged lengths of time. Of course, Tom hears this as Diane telling him that he cannot say the same of himself. The things he does in his own job, it seems, are causing -- or at least contributing to -- the decay of the environment.

Added into the mix is the plight of Tom's daughter from a previous marriage, Sallie (Meritt Wever); he kicked her out because of her drug use, and she is currently attempting to find alternative housing. Then there's Bahktiyor (Piter Marek), a mysterious individual who might be Tom's drug dealer, Sallie's boyfriend, Diane's landscape architect, or perhaps all three.

The situation that Groff presents has a sci-fi feel, yet character relationships are all too recognizable. The emotional distance between Diane and Tom is keenly felt, even when she's not falling asleep on the kitchen counter during one of their arguments. Likewise, the conflict between father and daughter is filled with resentment, anger, and even a little bit of love.

The production is unevenly directed by Hal Brooks, but it still brings out the humor and vitality of the play. MacCary captures the neurotically brittle personality of Diane, though both she and Dolan push a bit too hard in their opening scene. Dolan's displays of emotion do not seem grounded, which makes it difficult to understand what's really going on with his character.

Wever has a quirky presence that at times seems hypernaturalistic and, at other times, bizarrely stylized; she'd be perfect in a Richard Maxwell production, as that's exactly the kind of quality he's best known for. Marek has a laid-back presence that can be sexy, enigmatic, or threatening, depending upon the situation; his interactions with MacCary's Diane are the production's strongest, mainly due to the two actors' simmering chemistry.

Set designer Jo Winiarski has provided a naturalistic kitchen for the characters to move around in, filled with shiny surfaces. Kirk Bookman's lighting helps move the production into the surreal, particularly by causing the kitchen counter to glow during key moments.

What Then includes two songs with music by Joe Popp. The bouncy title number, sung by Marek and MacCary, is both cheesy and charming. The other song, featuring the entire cast, has a catchy tune that's a cross between bubblegum pop and punk. These musical interludes are quite amusing and fit the sort of avant-garde aesthetic that continues to be popular with a number of downtown playwrights and production companies.