When Kim Donovan walks on stage, dragging her suitcase behind her, and is quickly intimidated by a drunk man, the fear and uneasiness in her eyes is palpable. Without her having to even open her mouth, you know you're watching a great actress at work. Donovan, playing the role of Jordan, a wanna-be poet in New York City who can't seem to find artistic success, is truly mesmerizing in Vital Theatre Company's production of J. Holtham's new play 11th Hour, and achieves what few actors can do nowadays, make acting look natural and effortless. With a light voice that occasionally turns husky with the right turn of phrase, Donovan clearly establishes herself as the center of Holtham's intriguing, but unevenly scripted work.
11th Hour is a small, but provocative play that speaks to the lives of many artistic New Yorkers in their 20s and 30s. Holtham asks a difficult and uneasy question, at least for those of us who identify as artists, namely, how does one find happiness in life when one's dreams of artistic greatness haven't turned out the way one plans? For that matter, what is happiness and will we know it when we have it? Should we sell out and enter the "real world," here depicted by the figure of Reed (Timothy Davis), an investment banker, or do we seek out fleeting pleasures such as food and sex while waiting for our big break, as does slacker guitar player Gig (Christopher Burke)?
Donovan as Jordan highlights this dilemma with stunning intensity early in the play when she describes the "happy" life of her suburbanite sister who is so well off that she has an entire room in her house dedicated to knick knacks and accoutrements associated with lighthouses. Crying out her frustration over her own disappointing life to her roommate and best friend Nerf (Joanna Liao), Jordan confesses that she has stolen one of her sister's lighthouse ornaments as a tangible emblem of all that she lacks in her failed career as a poet and "starving artist." Like her other scenes, Donovan brings so many layered emotions to this one moment that it's fascinating to watch how subtly she shifts from anger and disappointment in one instant to anxiety and worry in the next. Even when Holtham's writing takes a turn into the prosaic, Donovan manages to find truth and convincing meaning in the words she utters. Unable to snag a poetry fellowship, Jordan finds herself temping at Reed's investment banking firm, and though she demonstrates a talent for the administrative duties she performs, she cannot allow herself to take a permanent job working in an office as she equates such an action with selling out and giving up her dreams of an artistic life.
The poignancy and veracity with which Holtham addresses these issues of art, life, and happiness are sadly undercut by Holtham himself. A secondary plot line between Nerf (the sunny, yet acerbic Liao) and Gig, her on-again off-again boyfriend, feels like an old rerun of Sex and the City. When a relationship strikes up between Jordan and the once "dumb," but now "straight-arrow" investment banker Reed, things are slightly more interesting, but once sex enters the picture, the play devolves into romantic clichés. Holtham loses sight of the more profound issues he has established in the first act, and instead lets the play fall into a muddled mess in act two, in which all the characters seem to be sleeping with each other and cheating on their partners. The plot takes a particularly bad turn when the play, at one point, sadly lapses into borderline farce when all four characters meet up in a restaurant in New York and air their sexual escapades to each other.
Director Bradley Campbell wisely brings a simple, balanced, yet playful staging to the text, but his work is slightly marred by the overacting of Christopher Burke whose hysterics throw the play off kilter every time Burke graces the stage. Luckily, Liao and Davis turn in solid performances that leave the play on even footing.
With some rethinking, honing, and trimming, Holtham might be able to turn his good start of a play into something truly stunning. Like his play's characters, hopefully Holtham will not sell out for cheap theatrical gimmicks and instead find the buried art that glimmers brightly within this work. In the meantime, one can't help but be transfixed by Kim Donovan's elegant acting, and hopefully it won't be long until we see her headlining a major production.
Vital Theatre Company