Big Game Theater

At the end of Selling Water, I left the theater only to be overtaken by a sudden doubt. What if it wasn’t over yet?

I hung around outside for a while and thought it over. Most of the audience wasn’t leaving, but virtually all of them had the telltale friends-and-relations look, so they wouldn’t leave right away. Bows had been taken. The only character with plot possibilities was dead. There didn’t seem to be any way to construct a second act that wouldn’t require new characters, and there were none listed in the program.

On the other hand, nothing was concluded. There was no point, no closure. Whole subplots dangled incomplete. I waited until the cast started to leave, bags under their arms, then I left. If they weren’t going to stick around, neither was I.

Here’s the story: Tom and Stan just got out of college. Tom, who talks like a commencement address, is a social worker. He works with mothers whose children have been taken from them by the state. Stan, who talks like a commencement address that’s been trapped in a hot elevator for three or four hours, wanted to work for Greenpeace but had to settle for being a corrupt, morally bankrupt water-filter salesman at a thousand dollars a week.

Many commencement addresses are made. Guilt over expensive educations is expressed. Longing to change the world is announced, interrupted from time to time by Tom’s clients. They’re so dangerously crazy that only a fool would try to put a child in their hands. Tom acts like a fool. Stan gets a promotion: in exchange for being even more corrupt and guilt-crazed, he can walk away with $200,000. More commencement addresses are made. Then, wham! A Startling Revelation occurs, and a few minutes later a member of the audience lurks outside trying to decide whether it’s over.

Playwright David Rubin’s script is nearly worthless. It raises issues it has no intention of dealing with. It has no respect for the integrity of its characters. The language is leaden. The plot is strained, and we don’t even get to hear the end of it: the Startling Revelation halts the action without bringing it to a close.

The worst part, I suppose, is how little Rubin seems to care about the world. If he knows anything about social work, or about sales, it doesn’t show. If he knows anything about people, it doesn’t show. It’s fine that Tom is naive, but does he have to be so relentlessly naive? It’s fine that he’s obsessed with his job, but does it make sense that he’d never say a word that’s not about his job? And Tom’s clients are cartoons. That’s especially unfortunate. Tom keeps ranting about how he wants to help them, how he wants to understand them. But because Rubin isn’t interested in them, Tom’s noble effort is doomed.

Speaking of doomed efforts, the cast of Big Game Theater’s world-premiere production of the play is generally pretty good. Carlos Jacott has the most recognizably human character to work with, and he brings Stan to life as a young man who chooses sleaze out of sheer irritation. Deb Seigel, Kathleen Dunn, and Jennifer Keller give quick, sharp definition to Tom’s clients. Chris Hogan as Tom has an impossible role: the character works only as satire, but it would damage the production to play him for laughs. Hogan does the right thing, but there’s not much satisfaction in seeing it.

Director Anna D. Shapiro has a pretty good track record, including well-received productions of Balm in Gilead and Are You Now or Have You Ever Been at Big Game. Most recently she’s been studying at the Yale School of Drama, where Rubin’s a student as well. I understand the director’s impulse to find new work, new dramatists. But she wasted her talent on Selling Water–and her actors, and her audience’s patience. What are they teaching you at Yale, Anna? Don’t you think it might be time to come home?