The Why Overhead
Adam Syzmkowicz's new work is both engaging and intelligent.
There is a nutty nobility at work in Adam Syzmkowicz's new play, The Why Overhead at the Access Theater, that shows why this highly praised young playwright continues to be someone to watch. If not everything clicks in this new 90-minute work, enough of it still hits its mark to make the show engaging, silly fun with a satisfyingly intelligent underpinning.
What makes Syzmkowicsz so unusual is that he writes with a rare combination of existential contemplation and go-for broke comedy. Some of Syzmkowwicz's humor is low and some of it is slyly sophisticated, but all of it comes from well-observed human truths. He tends to write a lot of long comic riffs for his actors – some more successful than others and perhaps there are just a tad too many, because we come to expect them rather than being surprised by them.
The play is designed on a timeline that takes place during one work day in an office, with exceptions that include, among others, a man at home, Donald (David Bennett) contemplating his revenge for having been fired. It's this plot line that gives the play its necessary tension and dramatic arc, but it's also a device that allows the more interesting and less obvious stories the opportunity to be told.
Among these are a phone call romance between an employee named Sam (the charming Rowan Michael Meyer) and a customer, Violet (Cotton Wright) that had called in with a warranty question. Their unfolding relationship is comically tender while being propelled forward by questions about timing and destiny.
A more comically desperate story is happening with a young woman who runs the office who has been staying home, because she has the lost the will go to work and care; it all seems pointless to her. She has long talks with her dog, Eugene (Larry Phillips), who often answers her, speaking on her behalf with the answers she wants to hear. Close to a nervous breakdown, she and Eugene intend to leave New York and live the hobo life. What ensues is a full twelve-person cast dream sequence of a cute and catchy hobo song (written by Dru Cutler). It is one of the show's most outrageously creative and inspired moments, not only for its joyful sense of fun but also for its poignant finale.
A couple of the other stories tend toward the mundane and derivative, such as two hostile employees engaged in one-upping each other in a destructive battle of wills, while another story centers around two male employees each vying for the attention of a pretty female co-worker.
A key ingredient the playwright brings to bear is a genuine affection for all of his characters, no matter how genuinely crazy they may be. By the time the play reaches its crescendo, it veers out of any kind of realism into a kind of theatrical netherworld when a policewoman (Britney Burgess) arrives and tells the employees she needs their statements, and the characters give her – and the audience – far more than the policewoman is asking.
All of this inspired mayhem is directed with enthusiastic energy by Matthew J. Nichols, and while the cast is a mixed bag – with Susan Louise O'Connor and Scott Thomas among the standouts – the overall tone is mostly tart and spirited.