While Broadway and Off-Broadway are increasingly the home of instant-ensembles thrown together for one production, a real ensemble seems like a throwback -- especially one that is in its first phase. Though Split is dominated by two-character scenes that embody the social disjointedness which Weller's script targets, one feels that every player onstage is committed to serving the piece as a whole. This is no accident: The principals of Broken Watch have collaborated for several years, formally coming together under their apt moniker last fall for their New York debut, a widely-praised revival of Howard Korder's Boys' Life.
In this production, we get to enjoy not only the varied and intimately realized performances of Leo Lauer and Teresa L. Goding as Paul and Carol (the couple whose split is the play's catalyst) but also the work of actors in smaller parts who, in not trying to steal the show, manage to sketch deep characterizations with just a few lines. Throughout, we feel an actor's touch in the direction of Drew DeCorleto, the group's artistic director, as each performer is allowed to pull from his/her role just what is necessary and to trust that it's enough. With a few advancements in set design and some budgetary support, Broken Watch's productions could challenge many of the high-profile star packages on and Off-Broadway that provide us with memorable moments but rarely a unified production.
Split concerns a group of friends shaken when the "perfect couple" among them breaks up. Carol and Paul are normal in a time and place when normality seems -- well, boring. Their failure to find creative ways past their boredom hurts their sense of who they are as individuals and as a couple. Paul is hangdog but funny, caring and genuine in a combination that Leo Lauer brings off with aplomb. His Paul is someone we know and envy for his ability to appreciate what he has, yet we don't begrudge him his longing for what he doesn't have. Lauer integrates Paul's contrasts deftly, blending subtle colors without muting them.
His somewhat estranged wife, Carol, is an engagingly confused woman --a mixture of loony and sensible, affable and snide, insecure and deceptively powerful. Teresa L. Goding takes this wider set of contrasts and does very sharp work with them. She gives us a person who has begun to question the premises of her life and finds them wanting. How does one change and keep love alive? Her treatment of the quandary is compelling, never forced. (When explaining to her husband why she continues relations with a friend of his whom she admittedly dislikes, her defiant "because I'm not going to give her the satisfaction of not hanging around her" brings down the house.)
Split could have suffered from a less pleasant kind of anachronism. Were it not for DeCorleto's astute directorial choices, the script's pitfalls -- some dated references and the burden of having been among the first of many plays to deal with this topic in this manner -- might have made for more jarring moments of déjà vu. As it is, the similarity of Donald Margulies' 2000 Pulitzer winner Dinner With Friends to Split in terms of theme and structure is striking.
One begins to feel, however, that this choice of play is a bit too easy for the performers and the audience. Broken Watch is clearly about actors, but the experience of watching talented performers stretch themselves is largely confined to a few nice moments in the second act of Split. I overheard one patron remark that the play, witty as it is, seemed to have been chosen primarily because it gives all of the founding members of the company a chance to perform. For a group that is just getting on its feet, this is acceptable; but shouldn't artists who are just out of school feel, at least for a while, as much a desire to create new artistic paths as successful careers? Given that their first steps have been so sure, one hopes that the Broken Watch actors will bring their mastery of ensemble playing to bear on material that is steeper and more challenging while continuing to present worthy, established plays as showcases for their talents.