Scoff if you choose at reality television, but never discount the potential power of reality theatre. Look beyond improvisation to the realm of the semi-scripted, and you'll find a gem of a show in the Happy Accident production of Caz Dies Alone.
This is a play that revels in the too often ignored qualities of understatement and subtext. Those qualities, however, weren't the work of a single author; they were brought out through improvisations from the members of the show's five-person cast under the direction of Robert Davenport. He extensively outlines the process (inspired by Paul Clements's book The Improvised Play) in the show's program, but the details aren't important. The outcome is, and it's impressive.
The cast members (Andrew Cassese, Anna Cody, Laura Flanagan, Lawrence Jansen, and Tricia McAlpin) have created characters of beguiling richness, layered with more subtleties than are frequently on offer in scripted twenty- or thirty-somethings. Their interactions with each other are uncomfortable, coarse, and unrefined, enough to make you feel that they can't have been planned ahead of time. But they're so biting and raw that it's equally difficult to believe they were generated on the spur of the moment.
These exchanges, which form the foundation of the play, all arise from a simple scenario: Longtime friends and roommates Tom and Caz (Jansen and Cassese) struggle to maintain their friendship and independence as they cycle through a number of different women, including their mutual friend Jane (McAlpin), a sexy and mysterious naturalist named Jasmine (Cody), and their new roommate Francesca (Flanagan). These are all young people trying to make it in different facets of the entertainment business, without possessing the self-esteem or drive necessary to get very far.
That complicates their relationships, and forces them to form close, often co-dependent attachments with each other; slowly their lives become tightly intertwined. A fight between Caz and Jasmine ends with her in a hushed conversation with Tom, which leads to painful repercussions for those three and Jane, who's long carried a torch for Tom. A chance meeting in a gym between Anna and Fran might rekindle fires Caz would prefer remain out. When all five collide at a party after a series of deceptions and blow-ups, their fragile friendships could dissolve forever.
One of the production's greatest strengths is its violent unpredictability; every scene in Caz Dies Alone heralds new surprises. But it's also one of the show's greatest weaknesses: Despite a solid foundation, the structure itself is shaky, and most of the scenes feel like variations on a theme rather than a seamlessly interlocking whole. This disconnection makes it difficult to assemble the pieces of the play's puzzle as it's going along; you're left mostly with general impressions that only eventually form a cohesive picture of what's happening.
But the frustration that engenders proves an acceptable price for many of the finely wrought scenes that result. During one, Tom and Jane must deal with the jagged, awkward silences that arise when they're alone, and the scene is drenched with personal pain and unspoken yearning. Later, a confrontation between the two begins with them exchanging nonsense syllables and half-formed sentences, and slowly morphs into a picture of warm-hearted playfulness. At another point, two characters converge on a couch in the most legitimately erotic seduction scene of the season.
These moments are heightened by the intimate Dorothy Strelsin Theatre (at the Abingdon Theatre Complex) in which the show is housed. As you're never more than a few feet away from the actors, you hear every faint whisper, feel as though you're a part of even the most intimate conversations. Andrew Cavanaugh Holland sometimes mutes the full possibilities of such close quarters with his scenic design, which transforms the theater into a tarp-divided loft; depending on the tarps' positions, you might find yourself missing the visuals of a crucial scene or two.
But because of the meticulous work done by Davenport and his actors, you'll still feel every second of it. If this isn't a play that makes a thoroughly convincing case for unscripted dramatic theatre, it does beautifully illustrate what can happen when the heart, the mind, and pure theatrical instinct come together in a highly unfettered way. The resulting words and emotions won't always be completely successful, but in Caz Dies Alone, they come very, very close.