On the Exhale
Sometimes paranoia isn't unreasonable, but it is always toxic. That truth is apparent in Martín Zimmerman's solo play On the Exhale, now making its world premiere at Roundabout Underground. Marin Ireland (Reasons to Be Pretty) plays the nameless protagonist, a single mom and women's studies professor who develops a sudden attraction to firearms. Zimmerman aims at vital themes of death and desire with his free verse monologue, but his decision to indulge in formal gimmickry keeps the play from ever hitting the bull's-eye.
The show begins when Ireland walks onto an empty stage (minimal set design by Rachel Hauck). Wearing blue jeans and a comfortable gray cardigan (standard college professor attire by Emily Rebholz), she looks like she is about to perform at an Ithaca open-mic night. Instead, she tells us about her mounting fear of a school shooting perpetrated by one of her disgruntled male students, angered by an "insidious" and "inhumane" core curriculum that requires him to learn about Betty Friedan. Her fears prove to be half-correct; but rather than turning her into a militant gun-control advocate, her encounter with gun violence initiates a clandestine love affair with the rifle used by the shooter. She cannot get enough of its intoxicating power.
Or rather, "you" cannot get enough. The entire piece is performed in second-person. Lines like, "This is how you go from never having held a gun / to owning an assault rifle / in a matter of minutes," take on the feeling of an instruction manual on how to destroy one's sanity. Rather than drawing us into the story by convincing us that it could happen to us too, this strange affectation serves to hold the audience at arm's length, making the actor's job much harder.
Ireland struggles valiantly to make the verse sound as if it were just coming to her on the fly. Unfortunately, her fallback postures are sarcasm and incredulity: " You slowly raise your hands / Why? / Instinct, probably? / You've seen it a hundred times in movies," she shrugs as she sees a gun pointed in her face. We don't get the sense that the stakes are life-or-death in this somewhat morbid stand-up routine. We are always acutely aware that she is reciting poetry.
This problem is compounded by Leigh Silverman's stripped-down production, which puts nothing between the audience, the performer, and the playwright's words. There are no set pieces or props. Jen Schriever's lighting subtly shifts to suggest the change of time and place. Ireland's only blocking consists of stepping into these pools of illumination. Taken with Zimmerman's use of free verse, On the Exhale comes to resemble George Brant's Grounded (the original Ken Rus Schmoll version; not the Julie Taymor sandbox extravaganza). This approach can be really effective with powerful source material and Zimmerman's script occasionally rises to the occasion.
There are moments of simmering intensity, like when our protagonist first fires her weapon, or when she schedules sessions at the shooting range between her classes. We begin to understand her relationships to guns as more than a fascination, but a fetish: For a person in her situation, it is the ultimate taboo and that is precisely what makes it sexy.
A late encounter with a pro-gun senator is likely to quicken pulses: Our narrator lavishes him in praise until she realizes that he doesn't actually believe in the policies he supports, but does it to please his voters and keep his job, "That his cowardice is so monumental he doesn’t deserve to exist."
Ireland preaches this line with fiery wrath as the piece flirts with the possibility of transforming a liberal revenge tragedy. Sure, it would be violent, messy, and completely unhinged, but for a play that deals with our basest desires, this might just be the right choice. Sadly, On the Exhale always takes a breath and backs off the ledge. The result is a drama that feels safe and unmemorable.