Personal Space Theatrics serves up a crystal-clear production of Julian Schwab's trippy yet too self-involved metatheatrical play.
Stepping into HERE's upstairs space is a little like entering a fun house. A traverse stage with seating at opposite ends of the space and one half of the audience facing the other creates a disorienting mirror effect that is certainly intended: The creative team behind rogerandtom, Julien Schwab's ambitious, yet unenlightening exercise in metatheatricality, wants you to be disoriented.
Wedged between the two clumps of audience is a small yet chicly modern New York City apartment, dominated by neatly labeled moving boxes. The walls are invisible, with corners demarcated by taut wires stretching from floor to ceiling. This is the home of Rich (Richard Thieriot) and Penny (Suzy Jane Hunt). Soon it will only be Penny's. They are going through a divorce and Rich is moving out. Penny is barely holding it together, passive-aggressively bickering with Rich about movers and the arrival of her two brothers, Roger and Tom, who haven't spoken to each other in five years. These are the emotionally fragile yuppies of any given new play about New Yorkers produced at a reputable not-for-profit theater in the past decade.
Yet when an audience member's cell phone rudely goes off and he attempts to shuffle out of the theater, things get distinctly stranger. The disruptive audience member is Roger (Eric T. Miller), Penny's aforementioned brother. His arrival is supposed to be a surprise, but honestly, you can see him coming from a mile away: He's the only person who is able to cross through the set before the show (rather than around it in the properly defined audience lane) without being accosted by an usher.
Rich (who is portrayed by an actor named William [who is actually portrayed by an actor named Richard…see how much fun we're having?!?!]) tries to convince Roger not to leave, telling him that his brother Tom wrote this play for him. Much like a character in Pleasantville, Penny is completely oblivious to this, believing this artifice to be her real life. Roger attempts to disavow her of this notion, walking through her apartment "walls" (which really freaks her out) and pointing out how the moving boxes are just filled with Styrofoam, rather than Rich's belongings. Rich/William counters that he still loves Penny and is not leaving, hence the Styrofoam. This sets off a theatrical chess game between the two men, with Penny the unsuspecting pawn. Yet in the theater, the playwright is God, and it seems there is nothing Roger can do or say that was not already predestined by the script.
Under the steady direction of Nicholas Cotz, the three actors do a fine job navigating this Twilight Zone-esque story. Even though we're through the looking glass, it's all crystal clear. Miller is unwavering in his New Jersey blue-collar portrayal of Roger. Thieriot, who is saddled with most of the expository heavy-lifting, can melt the audience into hysterics with one knowing grin. Hunt registers the most committed performance. Her breakdowns and confusion are frighteningly genuine, bringing Penny's awful choice into sharp focus: Will she leave the play (the only reality she has ever known) or continue on with the show and her lie of a life?
The larger thematic implication is that, in one way or another, our lives require a fair amount of theater: We play dress-up at work, pretend to like our families, and put on a good show at parties, all in an effort to maintain a quotidian existence. rogerandtom offers the possibility of stepping out of the show, of refusing to play that game. Still, I'm not sure it tells that story any more effectively than Nora's door-slam in A Doll's House. In fact, all the metatheatrical talk has the potential to alienate an audience not as familiar with the conventions of the stage.
Therein lies the problem with self-referential theater in general. Plays about actors and playwrights and directors run the risk of becoming so self-involved that they can only talk to other theater artists, rather than a wider audience. rogerandtom can be quite fun in its trippiness, especially for those who spend a great deal of time around the stage. Yet as I left the theater I couldn't help thinking, "So what?"