By Bill Hirschman
In movies and television, “ordinary people” facing a dystopian challenge miraculously find bottomless courage, unconstrained ingenuity and unflappable composure beyond anything you and I expect we would be able to muster.
We would be more like the extended family slowly coming unglued in Theatre Lab’s world premiere of Last Night in Inwood facing a rising confluence of global environmental disasters and world-wide organizational meltdown as civilization disintegrates.
At first, they simply seem a bit unnerved as reports of looting seep into the apartment at the northern tip of Manhattan, much as veteran Floridians act at an approaching hurricane.
Then clumsily they are trying to decide how to cope as flooding seawater literally rises toward this highest point on the island since the levees at the Battery have broken. Contra-opinions on everything from politics to racial stereotypes clash in recurring squabbles. Then, the never-uttered threat of oblivion squeezes unresolved grievances into the open as fire engulfs the nearby Cloisters museum, packs of domesticated dogs go wild, white supremacist gangs roam unpoliced and there’s a possibility that what military is left is rounding up people in ethnic groups to put them in camps.
Did we mention that Alix Sobler’s script is billed as a tragi-comedy, significantly leavened throughout with banked humor?
This concept should not work, and in lesser hands, it might not. But this is Theatre Lab, one of the region’s most adept companies at envisioning and delivering new work in innovative ways.
The major victory is how deftly this dark fantasy is made credible flesh by Sobler’s scriptwriting, the solid acting and the adept direction. This is slightly satirical theater, but this production comes off as recognizably naturalistic, even as the danger, the stakes and the internal conflict mount higher and higher. All of encroaching dysfunctions ease the audience into the true situation with underplayed passing remarks of this inconvenience, then that problem, then that terrifying prospect, then inarguable horror.
True, significant facets thematically are about the state of modern life today with its dependance on new conveniences and infrastructure, the potential fallout from disregard for the environment, the sense of an eroding government and a half-dozen similar concerns. But what Sobler, director Matt Stabile and the cast are concerned with is how human beings deal with crisis: inept, unprepared, struggling, battling each other, and then finally finding the bonds of humanity prevailing, although the question is whether that has happened in time to sidestep barely imaginable tragedy.
And all this as character-driven comedy results in considerable giggles and laughter in the audience.
The set up: Danielle (Aubrey Elson), a social worker, is collecting items from her one-bedroom apartment in Inwood. Danny’s worried that she hasn’t heard from her husband Cal (Jovon Jacobs), a nurse, who is somewhere looking for supplies. Her father Max (Avi Hoffman), a classic Brooklyn brogued senior, arrives with a suitcase and an inexhaustible supply of uber-conservative assurances that the government is in control.
Next at the door is Aunt Sheila (Patti Gardner), a counter-culture advocate who repeatedly reminds people she was at Woodstock. In between arguing politics, all three are worried that Danny’s brother Michael and his family in the West Village have not yet arrived through the urban gauntlet.
Next door neighbor and Danny’s buddy, Jazz (Lynette Adames), a bright 19-year-old college student, arrives, saying her parents are stranded visiting their homeland of the Dominican Republic. They are joined by Billy, (Paolo Pineda), a gay actor and family friend. Some clumsy interaction occurs between Max and the two young people about race and sexuality. While gathering a disparate assortment of supplies in the living room in case they are trapped here for some time, folks chomp down on munchies.
As Cal arrives, a dozen divisive issues erupt from using guns to culture differences, as the option-crippling dangers close in. A particularly interesting rebuke is Jazz blaming the once idealistic Boomers for creating the elements leading to this situation. But deeper wounds are opened such as Max not telling Danny that her mother—his wife—was dying of cancer in time for a last visit.
It seems obvious that the group will either be trapped or will have to plan to leave the city, the state, more likely the country to escape this nightmarish convergence of horrors. But there’s no clear agreement on that either.
Certainly, the situation is meant to play into a 21st Century denizen’s growing fears of what is happening in the real world. It just takes advantage of the fantasy element of one piling onto another that we are willing to go along with.
But Sobler, Stabile and the cast seems even more interested in how people react when their status quo is vanishing.
The play opens with some tension in the air, but we’re not sure whether it could just be that they don’t have a battery to replace in a beeping smoke alarm. Then slowly, almost subtly, every couple of minutes, Sobler eases in a mention of another shortfall. Or someone offers an idea such as Max suggesting they fill the bathtub up with water. Each time, the tension rises another notch. It would have strained credulity to have dumped the nightmare all at once, but this way we actually buy into the impossible aggregation of what is happening outside the walls of the apartment.
Crucially, the cast tasked with representing types of people of different backgrounds, ethnicities and sexualities marvelously avoids presenting two-dimensional stereotypes as the dark humor banters across the stage. Gardner and Hoffman particularly, who spar over classic political, religious and social issues, manage to give their characters a necessary added dimension that makes them believable human beings. Elson is especially effective as the central player trying to keep the assemblage rationale, even as she deals with her own fear and misgivings.
Stabile’s direction is, as always, nearly invisible to civilians, but expertly executed starting with the ability to make these people we recognize. Even when the center of attention is on two characters talking at one end of the stage, others are visibly deeply inside their own thoughts without pulling focus.
Sobler, who penned Theatre Lab’s The Glass Piano, starting writing the play in 2016 as part of a graduate school thesis project. She shopped it around but found no takers until picked up by Theatre Lab. It staged a reading of the play on Zoom and then planned to produce it last season. But COVID scotched that, leaving Sobler time to continue to work on the piece.
The modest home is evocatively designed by Michael McClain and the passage of hours – and fires outside—are provided by lighting designer Eric Nelson. Once again, costume designer Dawn C. Shamburger incorporates entire characterizations in all the clothes she gives the actors, most obviously the post-hippie garb for Sheila.
Last Night In Inwood, plays through Feb. 12 at Theatre Lab, 777 Glades Road, Florida Atlantic University campus, Boca Raton. Performances 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets $35-$45. Call 561-297-6124 or visit www.fau.edu/artsandletters/theatrelab