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A very fine cast brings depth to Michael Walker's overwritten and underdeveloped play about six New Yorkers in crisis. logo
Ryan Patrick Bachand and Teddy Bergman in Blackout
(© Jesse Chan-Norris)
By now, there are 10 -- maybe 20 -- million stories in the naked city, and more than a few of the more colorful ones concern the whereabouts of New Yorkers during the summer 2003 blackout. So it's only natural that fledgling playwright Michael Walker has chosen to explore that night and its implications in Blackout, the inaugural production of the Cell Theatre Company now at the Kirk Theatre.

Alas, Walker has failed to realize that one or two compelling stories are far more dramatically satisfying than six underdeveloped and overwritten tales. Moreover, there's a certain naïveté in his belief that the blackout was one of those experiences that changed ordinary people's lives forever. (Call me cynical, but I'm not convinced that September 11 transformed all but a handful of New Yorkers.) Fortunately, Walker and director Kira Simring have corralled a very impressive cast into bringing as much life into this two-hour-and-15-minute play as can be expected.

Blackout quickly introduces us to the play's central and most interesting pair: Alex (Teddy Bergman) is a puppy-dog-cute neurotic gay writer -- think a younger Tony Kushner -- who should be penning the Great American Novel rather than writing fictional letters of adolescent angst for Seventeen. While sitting on a local bar stoop engrossed in Don Quixote, he's quickly accosted by Maggie (Kate Goehring), a just-arrived refugee from her small North Carolina town who's been thrown out of her Baptist church for her newfound infatuation with the works of writer James Baldwin. After spending one night bunking together, she thinks she's found her own Baldwin in Alex, but fears she has lost God.

As the two find their separate crises of faith deepening over the next few days, they desperately cling to each other in their own makeshift lifeboat -- Alex's tiny studio -- and form a deep if improbable friendship that threatens to turn into something physical and ultra-emotional despite their different orientations. Goehring, who recently played another religious fanatic -- Margaret White in Carrie, at PS 122 -- is remarkably moving and believable as the unworldly Maggie, while Bergman smartly puts his own stamp on his potentially stereotypical character.

If only Walker had been content to simply tell their story, Blackout might have truly succeeded. However, Alex and Maggie are soon joined on the stoop by another odd couple: Lena (Almeria Campbell), a tougher-than-nails, African-American woman who works as a consultant on Wall Street and owns a brownstone in Harlem, and Colin (Ryan Patrick Bachand), a very charming and feckless white man she picks up while walking in Greenwich Village. When their one-night stand goes on longer than expected, the situation turns ugly, though not believably so.

Campbell and Bachand are extraordinarily attractive performers in every sense of the word, but they can't do much to make their alter egos likeable. To their credit, neither asks the audience for sympathy, something Bachand's Colin is particularly unlikely to receive after he toys with Alex's affections.

Even less fortunate is Kevin Mambo, last seen in Once Around the Sun, who struggles with the completely underwritten role of Fitz, a jazz saxophonist-turned-bar owner who suffers from his own form of malaise. The handsome actor -- a Daytime Emmy Award winner for his work on Guiding Light -- does score nicely in a late second-act scene about a bizarre sexual experience, but even that doesn't fully explain his character's social defensiveness.

The final piece of Walker's puzzle is Levi, a hyper-articulate homeless man who spouts way too many lengthy speeches, some of which have little purpose other than to preach Walker's big-picture message about the need for community. The character -- who seems to have wandered in from a lesser August Wilson work -- is jarring at best. Luckily, actor Darnell Williams -- remembered fondly by All My Children fans for his Emmy-winning run as Jesse Hubbard -- gives it all he's got; and gets more than his share of laughs!

In short, you could probably just stop six random New Yorkers on the street and find equally interesting -- and hopefully shorter -- anecdotes about that sultry summer night than are found here. Still, thanks to this very fine cast, Blackout is far from a washout.

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