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The Race

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Forget about hitting the gym after work; you'll burn away the day's calories just watching The Race. This exhausting offering from the physical theatre troupe Gecko, which has sprinted into 59E59 as part of the Brits Off-Broadway festival, is the most breathless show you'll see all spring. In more ways than one.

For one full, highly aerobic hour, the five-member cast remains in almost continuous movement as they depict, deconstruct, and wryly comment on the nonstop nature of the modern world. In doing so, they also celebrate (equally wryly) the only thing that can bring it screeching to a halt: life.

Or, more specifically, new life, as one corporate-ladder scaling, flesh-pressing company drone (Amit Lahav, also the show's director) is thrust into chaos when he learns he'll soon be a father. A rush of emotions - excitement, anger, worry - gives way to despairing curiosity when his friends ask, in unison, "So, how you gonna cope?"

By itself an innocuous line, occurring nearly halfway through the show and being the evening's first completely intelligible dialogue (most speech here is in disconnected syllables and quarter-finished sentences) it anchors for Lahav's character and for us the true concern of both expectant and prospective parents: Are you fit for this oldest and most important of responsibilities? The Race explores how this man seeks to answer that question, compressing his family life, non-family personal life, and business life into a spinning collage of apprehension as theatrically passionate as it is visually striking.

Using only a modicum of set pieces, such as wheeled tables and chairs, a treadmill, and black walls and curtains that can close off or open up the action as required, the Gecko performers (who all had a hand in fashioning the piece) create an exciting, physical stream-of-consciousness representation of this one man's troubled mind. Telephones, portable lighting instruments of multiple kinds, and plastic dolls become key in establishing this realm of too-real imagination. As the show glides from the stylized real (his office, suggested entirely by bustling people and desks) to the imaginary (a bar, where he contemplates a fling with a sultry woman) to the drearily concrete (the hospital during the delivery), the story remains focused and Lahav's present mindset obvious amid the uncertainties surrounding him.

Looking both energized and (understandably) enervated throughout, Lahav intricately captures all the joy, fear, and confusion his character experiences during his evolution from swinging single to responsible father. His natural good-naturedness gradually gives way to horror, bemusement, and acceptance of his role in the continuation of life, and Lahav handles the transformation beautifully at each step along the way.

The other characterizations lack that depth. Al Nedjari, James Flynn, Katharine Markee, and Natalie Ayton display the requisite stamina for this paternal picaresque, but without the specificity of intent that, above and beyond Lahav's visibility (he's almost never offstage), defines his work. While they're not aided by the paltry wisps of dialogue they're assigned (more often rhubarby chitter-chatter than discernible words), they also prove no impediment to the action as it hurtles toward its final destination.

Paradoxically, the show most slows down when the cast most speeds up. The last few minutes track a Marathon of Life, in which everyone - literally running nonstop for the first time all evening, while wearing faces inexplicably plastered with maniacally happy grins - transport us back to the initial conception of humanity. The show's move from personal to cosmic is not a smooth one, and as the sequence drags on, you wish for the first time the cast had found a way to move the story along more quickly.

But though this Examination of the Ultimate Bigger Picture diminishes the show's size somewhat, it can't disperse the powerful kinetic impact of the 55 minutes that precede it. It does, though, point up a key lesson of both play construction and running: Do whatever you like, but don't forget to pace yourself.


The Race
Through June 4
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatermania