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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
The Lower Cortex
By Elyse Sommer
An ordinary forty-year-old man spots a college campus flier asking for participants in a mysterious psychological study. On the spur of the moment he makes an appointment with the psychologist in charge. This psychologist has an uncanny knack for prying loose the hapless volunteer's innermost yearnings and frustrations. A fascinating cat and mouse game ensues.
The names alone establish who's the cat and who's the mouse. The psychologist uses only his surname, Summerlin. The volunteer who stumbled into the never specified study is Tom. With Stephen Bradbury coolly in charge as Summerlin and Craig Bockhorn's Tom revealing himself as an emotional bowl of jello, our interest is captured and our curiosity about the nature of the project mounts. With Summerlin's insistent prodding, the ordinary middle-aged married man's ordinariness unravels before our eyes. Tom throbs with yearnings to right injustices done him (including a snub by an attractive undergraduate he'd been watching just before he decided to heed the call of the flier), to be more than a man in a less than thrilling job, in a marriage that no longer holds any excitement and with children often as disappointing as they are endearing.
Good as Bradbury and Bockhorn are in playing their parts, however, they fail to sustain the tension of this comedic heir to the Dr. Strangelove/Twilight Zone genre of psychological thriller. The mystery beyond an ominously shut door gets lost in endless talk. By the time the first act ends and the smoking gun is set to go off, one can only hope that act two will light a dramatic fire under this potentially interesting exploration of what happens when we have a chance to transform our imaginary thoughts into reality.
Act two does move beyond that claustrophobic interview room. It's a year later and we're on a footbridge somewhere on the same campus where the play began. Instead of Summerlin, Tom -- cooler and much more composed -- now meets Jen (Caitlin McDonough-Thayer), the co-ed alluded to earlier on. We have a cat and mouse game once again and, guess who's the cat this time? Right you are. Tom, irreversibly changed by what he did/didn't do in that college office, is still unpacking his emotional baggage. The big change is that he's now less a benign, frustrated nebbish but closer to those people who make headlines when they "go postal".
Ms. McDonough-Thayer, like Stephen Bradbury, gives a fine performances. But once again, the actors are mostly talking heads unable to charge up what should be a highly charged dramatic situation. Playwright Bob Clyman, who is also a psychologist, clearly knows what makes people tick. What he still has to figure out is how to turn The Lower Cortext into less of a casebook drama designed as an introduction for student discussion.