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A CurtainUp Review
The Exit Interview

"This play contains Brechtian alienation devices! " -- Cheerleader 1
"Who is Brecht? " -- Cheerleader 2
"I have no idea! " -- Cheerleader 1

Exit Interview
Dan Hodge & Cheryl Williams
(Photo credit: Seth Rozin)
Playwright William Missouri Downs applies a Brecht-inspired distancing approach to brazen scattershot comedy in the National New Play Network rolling world premiere of The Exit Interview. Pieces of story collide with extraneous elements and with an array of seriously intended underlying messages. Yet a distinctly non-Brechtian suspense hangs over everything in the ever-present threat of a gunman on the loose.

Dan Hodge plays Professor Richard (Dick) Fig, a Brecht scholar who is being let go by his university. The exit interview transpires in a lowly storage room, which serves as the office of Eunice, the devout Catholic HR person (Cheryl Williams). Dick has shown up for the meeting wearing a huge cast on his leg.

Prominent among the playwright’s targets are knee-jerk, memorized answers to reasonable theological questions. He ridicules common adamant belief in a fickle personal-service God who favors one person’s fate over another’s. In didactic fashion, the show’s themes are sometimes stated outright, as if you could possibly miss them in context: "People accept a set of arbitrary rules instead of thinking things out for themselves." Yet Seth Rozin directs with tongue in cheek and a light touch.

Smart, nimble cast members handle multiple roles in quick succession and in exaggerated pretend-Brechtian style. The playwright’s Pet Peeves, bundled into funny, ridiculous packages, lampoon senseless small talk, commercials, TV (and in particular Fox News). Scientists argue over a protein (Brecht’s scientific inquiry?) and a Mormon convinces a Lutheran leader to give up on her religion. Interruptions, messages, and newly arriving script changes are thrown in to "break the theatrical illusion." These vignettes sometimes illustrate things that have happened – like how the prof’s ex liked her oboe more than she liked him – or they might demonstrate any of a variety of concepts. Although these bits can tend to hammer a point long after it has been made, they remain funny – neat trick.

When cheerleaders announce that commercials and product placement will now commence, silly and cleverly placed ads are added to the mix, along with real ads for InterAct sponsors, which are shown on a monitor.

Scenic designer Roman Tatarowicz’s set enables the forward momentum. The surprisingly realistic (for ‘Brecht’) storage room-office is designed to be instantly dismantled, re-assembled, and seen from various angles at different times. A low, moveable stage is quickly wheeled out front for supporting scenes that take place in another space, time, or reality level.

On this evening the audience, packed into the Adrienne’s mainstage house, appears to be having a glorious time as they respond enthusiastically to nonsensical cheerleader-led cheers. The atmosphere reminds me of a performance I attended at an outlying London theater earlier this month where the audience, as one, lustily sang the entire Marseillaise.

Even as it poses hefty questions within an absurd framework, The Exit Interview makes fun of its own intellectual and didactic pretensions. It seems that Brecht is being parodied along with Fox News and the rest of the writer’s hobby horses.

Bertolt Brecht, who breathed his last in 1958, won’t just lie down. That’s a good thing. His ideas helped to create a bold way out of the stranglehold that formulaic sentimental drama had on early 20th century stages. He and others cut alternative paths for theater to become more real and at the same time more blatantly theatrical. While much theater still clings to what Brecht would consider outmoded forms that cater to an audience that’s escaping reality, some companies have chosen a route that allows disjointed scenes, hard edges, and in-your-face social consciousness for a thinking audience.
As a message-bearing, new play oriented company, InterAct owes Brecht a debt of gratitude for his vision of theater as a laboratory of social change.

Note: Artistic director Seth Rozin’s leadership role in the National New Play Network has introduced Philadelphia to a number of the network’s memorable works in the last few years: Permanent Collection by Thomas Gibbons (which returns in April ’13); A House With No Walls, also by Gibbons; Black Gold by Seth Rozin; The Rant by Andrew Case; and Jihad Jones and the Kalishnikov Babes by Yussef El Guindi.

The Exit Interview >by William Missouri Downs
Directed by Seth Rozin

Cast: Dan Hodge, Cheryl Williams, Jennifer MacMillan, Meghan Malloy, David Bardeen, Eric Kramer
Set Design: Roman Tatarowicz
Lighting Design: Peter Whinnery
Sound Design: Mark Valenzuela
Costume Design: Natalia De La Torre
Projection Design: Janelle Kauffman
Oct 19 – Nov 11. Opening Oct 24
Approx 2 hours with one 15 min intermission
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 10/25/12 performance at the Adrienne Theater, Sansom Street.
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