A couple of 20-something East Village artists are getting ready to celebrate Christmas at the beginning of Christopher Shinn's new play Other People, directed by Tim Farrell at Playwrights Horizons' New Theater Wing. But within the play, Shinn's characters are quick to draw the distinction between themselves and the characters of that other show about East Village artists. "I mean when do any of those characters read?" asks Shinn's character Petra (Kate Blumberg) as she deconstructs the unnamed Pulitzer Prize-winning musical.
Other People, which premiered in March at the Royal Court in London, dramatizes the life, issues, and relationships of roommates Stephen (Neal Huff), an actor/playwright whose day job is writing movie blurbs for an online magazine, and Petra, a poet who has chosen to strip rather than temp for her paycheck.
The play opens with the arrival of Stephen's ex-boyfriend Mark (Pete Starrett), who had a breakdown while making a movie in Hollywood and has just gotten out of rehab. The trio meet up at a painfully hip restaurant, where a techno version of "O Holy Night" plays in the background. Mark, who has found Jesus while getting over crack, wants to say grace before they eat; Stephen thinks that's a first for a place that resembles Dante's fifth ring.
Tensions rise as the newly Bible-reading Mark takes up residence on Stephen and Petra's couch, and begins a sketchy relationship with Tan (Austin Lysy), a teenager whom he meets on the street. Meanwhile, an investment banker (Victor Slezak) at the club where Petra dances takes a particular interest in their conversations about poetry, pornography, and pop-culture. He suggests coffee, dinner, and dates--and generous compensation for her time--saying, "I want you to show me your life." Petra accepts.
Showing this life seems to be the challenge that the playwright has himself taken on. And with the play's intimate Snapple-drinking, blurb-griping, New Year's Eve-hyping details, he succeeds at recreating conversations which no doubt have taken place--and still are--among East 4th Street residents.
Shinn's microcosmic particularity and scenic designer Kyle Chepulis' Ikea specificity, however, are counteracted by the casting of actors who belong more in the age group above the characters they play. While audiences do grant willing suspension of age disbelief when it comes to Friends, it's a disappointment that they should have to for a play that aims to show a very specific world-- one in which 33 is not the same as 26.
In the program's introductory note, Playwrights' artistic director Tim Sanford describes Other People as "drolly pensive". In general the description fits, but the production puts an emphasis on the pensive. The fact that that the pace of Petra's ongoing artistic/aesthetic debate with her investment banker patron carry over to Petra and Stephen's God-I-can't-believe-I'm-eating-a-burger lunch is kind of a drag.
The last thing that I want the characters to do is break out into a song that glosses over the issue of paying that East Village rent, but I do miss the energy and urgency that is an essential component (in my experience) of that life. The city itself, referenced occasionally in Act I with transitional sounds of subway, hip-hop, etc., maintains a discreet place in the production. In Act II, when the script cuts between simultaneous New Year's Eve scenes, energy is lost in overly long blackouts, trans-stage entrances, and multiple musical cues.
The subscriber-based of-a-certain-age audience surrounding me this past Sunday afternoon, however, was very receptive the play. And since Shinn dedicates his script to his mother and father, his ability to explain (maybe justify?) his life to an audience of his elders is surely a goal accomplished.
And the fact that I can see characters, conversations, and experiences from my own life recreated on stage with sensitivity, intelligence, and humor makes Other People a play of importance to me as someone interested in contemporary American theater and in the lives of the other people that I find myself among.