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The Attic

The Play Company's presentation of Japanese playwright Yoji Sakate's darkly comic play is occasionally effective, but doesn't quite cohere.

Trey Lyford and Caesar Samayoa in The Attic
(© Carol Rosegg)
In Japan, there's a growing trend of young men (and a few young women) who withdraw into their rooms -- sometimes for years -- refusing contact with the outside world. These hikikomori, as they are known, are a symptom of societal malaise and the intense pressure young people feel to succeed, coupled with an economic downturn that prevents them from doing so. Japanese playwright Yoji Sakate explores this phenomenon in his darkly comic play Yaneura, which is currently receiving its English-language premiere from The Play Company under the title The Attic. Translated by Leon Ingulsrud and Keiko Tsuneda, and directed by Ari Edelson, the production has a few moving and/or amusing scenes, but the work doesn't quite cohere.

The Attic follows the lives of various characters that own or come into contact with an "attic," a specially designed trapezoidal room that allows the user nearly complete solitude, facilitating their withdrawal from society. The primary arc of the play follows a man (played by Trey Lyford) whose younger brother committed suicide in one such unit. He embarks on a quest to find the makers of these attics, and also the reason why his brother got so lost that he felt death was the only way out.

Lyford has a sad, melancholy air about him that makes all of his scenes emotionally resonant. Another standout is Brandon Miller, who portrays a mysterious man who may be the creator of the attics, and who appears to some of the other characters in their moment of need.

Unfortunately, the remaining cast members -- Caesar Samayoa, David Wilson Barnes, Fiona Gallagher, Emily Donahoe, Michi Barall, and Ed Vassallo -- each play multiple roles, often in such a broad manner that it dilutes both the humor and dramatic potential of their scenes. The blame for this has to be shared with director Edelson, who has been unable to find a consistent tone for the piece and encourages his cast to overplay the farcical elements in the script.

Still, there are strong moments. Donahoe has a terrific monologue as a 15-year-old attic dweller who reads The Diary of Anne Frank and begins comparing their two lives. "Anne was forced to live in a hiding place, but it made her think and feel a lot of things," she says. "I live a carefree life, so it's hard for me to imagine the life she was forced to live [...] she was happy to hear about the plan to assassinate Hitler, and I am looking forward to watching TV." The speech nicely comments on the privileges one has to have in order to become so withdrawn, without denying the very real depression that afflicts the young girl.

Too much of the time, however, the script's various digressions blunt the impact of The Attic's primary narrative. A series of scenes that play off of detective, samurai, and war films appear pointless and not very well executed. An obviously crazy woman, portrayed by Gallagher, has far too many tiresome scenes in the play. And for some reason, Barall is saddled with a number of bad wigs that make it difficult to take any of her characters seriously, even when we're supposed to.

Perhaps the most fatal flaw in both play and production is that it has failed to convey the necessary information needed to understand the cultural context that makes these attics possible. A program note detailing the Japanese phenomenon is not enough. The show needs to stand on its own and allow the audience to have more sympathy for these shut-ins, rather than simply make them easy targets for derision.


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