Perhaps the best thing about Sheila Callaghan's new play, The Hunger Waltz, which just opened at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater, is how it defies every expectation you may have for it.
It's a one-act play with four characters that reappear in various guises over several hundred years to tell one story about the changing perception of sexuality and the language used to describe and discuss it over the course of that time. Yet nothing about The Hunger Waltz feels overly familiar or in any way stale.
Callaghan's play, which has been cunningly directed by Olivia Honegger, is every bit as fresh and invigorating as it is stylish and perceptive. Callaghan falls into none of the traps that could make the play falter dramatically or emotionally, and she even manages to keep the last third or so of the play (set in the 22nd century), from descending into camp at the expense of the story. Down to the smallest details, this play is an impressive, exciting achievement.
The four excellent actors populating The Hunger Waltz are Kittson O'Neill as Gwen, always an intelligent and mature modern woman; Michael Connors, who plays her frequently abusive husband Walter; Brent Popolizio as the young man, Greg, whom Walter employs in his various enterprises; and Susan O'Connor as Beth, the beautiful younger woman who manages to turn both and Gwen and Greg's heads over the course of history.
That history is told in three scenes, set roughly two hundred years apart. In the first, set in the 1700s, Gwen and Walter are wealthy East Coast aristocrats about to have their first child, with Gwen acting as Beth's tutor and both women unable to define their feelings for the other verbally. The second scene is set in the 20th century, with Gwen and Walter modest farmers and business owners, with the intrusion of Beth's sexuality threatening to drive Gwen, Walter, and their son Mitch apart, though the women's feelings may be spoken of more freely. The third scene, taking place on the West Coast roughly a hundred years from now, finds the characters' relationships and the language holding their sense of society together breaking down a bit more every day.
The story truly is continuous, with no scene feeling unnecessary. Callaghan ties the time periods together with a few continuing themes (wind as a force of death, the great dangers present in the inability or unwillingness to speak about certain subjects) and images, such as a porcelain doll that reappears in each place over the 500 years or so the play covers. But those details feel like icing on the cake - the characters and their portrayals are solid enough to sell the story, certainly no small achievement with a concept this fragile.
Also a notable achievement is the fine balance of humor and drama that Callaghan has woven into her script; the play is, by turns, suspenseful, hilarious, and heartbreaking without ever missing a beat or getting off the track of the story. Though Popolizio must bear the brunt of most of the show's comedy (a task he handles quite well), the other actors all give intricately articulated and highly watchable performances that succeed in turning an intriguing show into surprising and rewarding theatre.
They're well assisted by Honegger's direction, which is rich, thoughtful, and intelligently enough paced to maintain a consistent energy throughout each high and lows of the almost epic story. Orit Jacoby Carroll's design for the show's set is always right on target, with each era being given a very unique and totally appropriate look. Naomi Wolf's costumes range from rich and elegant to spare and sexy; like the sets, they're always exactly what's needed. Dana Sterling's lights are always tightly controlled and perfect at setting the atmosphere, while Robert Kaplowitz's original music and sound design is nothing short of a pleasure throughout.
The Hunger Waltz is perhaps the first play to kick New York theatre in 2004 into a higher gear, and it will be interesting to see what Callaghan and the Relentless Theatre Company do next. They may want to step up work on their next project, though. After taking in The Hunger Waltz, their audiences are likely to be ravenously hungry for more.