Most playwrights would do well to realize that a gimmick alone does not a good play make. The same playwrights could also benefit from a visit to Scott C. Sickles's From the Top, now playing at The WorkShop, to see how a gimmick can become a concept, and a concept can become enlightening and entertaining.
Sickles uses From the Top to examine the nature of communication with friends and loved ones. He has created five characters - a renowned theatrical director (Roger Dale Stude), a long time couple of a famous playwright and his actress muse (Stephen Zinnato and Lori Faiella), and the director's one-time prodigy with his new boyfriend (Rob Cameron and Christopher Burke) - all of whom have plenty to say to each other, and plenty to keep from each other.
Sickles presents the story three times over the course of the play, each new time the focus shifting to a different room in the director's apartment - first the living room, then the kitchen, then the bedroom. The set - ingeniously designed by Alexander Tepper - does revolve, so every new iteration takes center stage, though each of the scenes finds some action in each of the other rooms as well. Tepper and director Max Montel always make the distinctions clear and keep confusion at a minimum; one of their most accomplished achievements is making the apartment's rooms vital, strategically placed characters.
Yet neither the staging nor the writing feel superfluous; this story could only be told this way. Sickles sets up his situation quickly - the five are meeting to attend an important event (the exact nature of which is not made clear until later) - and then lets the story (or rather, stories) take over. What seems important during the first act might seem trivial in the second, and a misplaced word or phrase might prove to have serious repercussions as soon as another person steps out of the room.
Sickles takes all these elements and builds them, intertwines them, and reconfigures them as necessary, allowing enough establishments and payoffs along the way so that the repetition of dialogue never seems stale, but necessary. It's impossible to know from moment to moment how an innocuous declaration or an offhand remark might have tumultuous implications once you see the story from a different perspective, and you don't know the whole story until the last seconds of the final scene. This is juicy, compelling writing. It's also frequently hilarious, with Sickles unafraid of setting up his joke an act (or two) in advance, and letting the payoffs speak for themselves. (One of the play's funniest moments is a completely offhand, serious line in a foreign language.)
Zinnato and Faiella make a volcanic and attractive couple, with chemistry to spare, and elevate deception (at least toward each other) into an art form. Burke and Cameron are winning in their roles as well, both projecting a charming innocence and generating a fair amount of their own heat. These four actors all demonstrate great range, and always strike the right dramatic balance, in whatever combination.
Stude has it a bit harder, saddled as he is with the play's least immediately engaging, yet perhaps most vital moments. The bulk of his performance is found in the third act, in the form of a mostly interior monologue which features some of From the Top's weakest and most obvious writing. Stude can't make much of that, though his reactions to other characters and his interactions with them directly are up to the high standards set by the rest of the cast.
It's this chemical interaction between the actors that makes this production of From the Top so lively and enjoyable, but they have plenty to work with. From the Top deserves a long life, though hopefully it will be ensconced on the New York stages for a long time to come, an ideal destination for audiences seeking a witty and intelligent modern comedy of manners.
Workshop Theater Company