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A CurtainUp Review

I had a whole job problem, a 'job situation,' you might say. Has anyone noticed that 'job' is the same as 'Job' as in the guy in the Bible who suffers?
---Artie, the Chicago friend whose ghost (literally) hovers over the Manhattan dinner party that drives Disconnect's plot.
The Working Theater has been presenting plays exploring the world of working people dealing with the stresses of our increasingly complex world. So what's with the trendy West Side Manhattan apartment setting where the only work being done is to prepare for a dinner party?

The hosts are Steve (Matthew Boston) and his wife, Patty (Elizabeth Connors). The guests to be are another upscale couple who live nearby but neither of whom Steve or Patty have ever socialiized with -- unless you count a casual acquaintanceship struck up by Steve and Jane (Tina Benko), the distaff half of the invited couple, in the playground where their respective children play when not attending an expensive private school.

It seems that Steve's taking that casual connection to the next level -- inviting Jane and her husband Fred (Brennan Brown) to dinner -- was prompted by his somewhat manic sense of disconnectedness which he can't share with Patty. It doesn't take any great insight to see that Steve's hyper intensity evidently has a lot to do with events during a recent business trip to Chicago -- which also happens to be where his longtime friend Artie (Lou Sumrall) lives. You see, the playwright has made Artie a ghost-like guest who is visible only to Steve.

Artie's haunting presence gives the realistic scenes an occasional abstract twist. Beside's Artie's surreal appearances and interaction with Steve, there are also occasional flashback scenes with Hamish (also played by Sumrall), the biggest client for his telecommunications expertise. Having Sumrall play both the depressed loser unable to adjust to our fast-paced, high tech world and the executive whose fees support Steve and Patty's life style once again demonstrates how double casting driven by economic necessity can be the mother of invention. Having Sumrall play these very different characters enhances the theme of the connection between the Hamishes and the Arties of this world. Director Connie Grappo sees to it that the segues from the present to the surreal and flashback scenes are carried off without awkwardness or confusion.

The blend of realistic drawing room comedy and dreamlike flashbacks has its moments and gives Ackerman a chance to air numerous issues about what the profitable move into a totally wired world iscosting us in terms of emotional and spiritual connectedness, not to mention its effect of deepening the divide between the haves (those who can afford to pay the fees that enrich people like Steve and Hamish) and the have-nots. However, as the "new friends" arrive and bring their own psychological baggage instead of a bottle of wine or dessert cookies, the dinner party turns into a painful truth-telling reminiscent of George and Martha and and Nick and Honey in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Alas, Disconnect and its characters suffer from this comparison. While the issues brought to the dinner table are worth thinking about neither Patty or Steve or their guests are developed with the depth and breadth to make the audience feel emotionally connected to any of them.

The shift from polite get acquainted small talk to the unraveling of heretofore unrevealed truths is expedited by Jane, who unlike the ditzy guest in Virginia Woolf, is a powerful character (powerfully portrayed by Benko). The green shoes she wears (a nice touch by costume designer Perrie Wilkof) signal that she's no ordinary psycho therapist, but a parasychologist and witch. Jane's assured manner prompts her to slice the surface layer off small talk with outspoken and confrontational statements and questions. And so, the lid is blown off the secret pertaining to Steve's Chicago trip. Jane's own husband also has his problems (his dating back to a brutal childhood beating by his father) so that as in Virginia Woolf, we have two marriages in trouble.

For all the revelations and Benko's standout performance (though the entire cast is good), this is basically the men's story. At the intermission, my companion commented "I guess we'll get to the women's secrets in the next act." But he was wrong. While Patty's reaction to Steve's work situation reveals the narrowness of this stay-at-home-mom's concerns, and Jane's outspokenness hasn't exactly helped Fred deal with his repressed anger, both women stalk off stage rather abruptly leaving us with a sense that Ackerman has set us up to expect more than he ultimately delivers.

To read our review of Ackerman and Connie Grappo's last collaboration for the Working Theater, see Tabletop

Written by Rob Ackerman,
Directed by Connie Grappo
Cast: Tina Benko (Jane), Matt Boston (Steve) Brennan Brown (Fred) Elizabeth Connors (Patty) and Lou Sumrall (Artie and Hamish)
Set Design: Jim Youmans
Costume Design: Perrie Wilkof
Lighting Design: Jack Mehler
Sound Design: Bill Grady
Running time: 2 hours with 1 intermission.
The Working Theater at 13th Street Theatre, 136 East 13th Street, (212) 279-4200
From 5/27/05; opening 5/31/05.
Monday to Saturday at 8pm and Saturday at 2pm.
Tickets: $27 ($30 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM), and $25 for students/ seniors and union members for all performances.
Tuesdays are Pay-What-You-Can.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on June 4th performance
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