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The Hallway Trilogy

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Hallway Trilogy
Louis Cancelmi, Sarah Lemp, Julianne Nicholson, Katherine Waterston, Danny Mastrogiorgio, and Guy Boyd.
Photo courtesy of Rattlestick Theatre.

Great barriers make great art because artists aren’t generally the types to hold things back: Let them off on their own and they might take you places no one wants to go. Julie Taymor may be discovering this on Broadway right now with Spider-Man, but it’s a lesson that could be learned at a smaller — if equally important — level at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. That’s where Adam Rapp, one of Off-Broadway’s most adventuresome and undisciplined playwrights, has just opened The Hallway Trilogy.

If this does not sound quite as auspicious as other recent epic theatrical events — The Coast of Utopia, The Orphans’ Home Cycle, The Norman Conquests, The Great Game: Afghanistan — it’s not. Nor should it be, because it wouldn’t benefit from that treatment. Rapp’s aim with the work, which may be viewed in individual 100-minute chapters or as part of day-long Sunday “marathons,” is merely to chart 100 years in the history of a single floor on a single Lower East Side apartment building, dropping in on it at 50-year intervals. If anything could keep Rapp on message, and away from the flights of consumerism-baiting fancy and just plain emotional insanity that define most of his plays, it must be this: How many entrées into the bizarre could this straightforward scenario provide?

You may be surprised. Then again, as this is Rapp — who sets many of his plays at a time and place between the apocalypse and the latest rollback sale at Wal-Mart — you may not be. The biggest disappointment with The Hallway Trilogy isn’t that Rapp can’t even behave himself when the strictures are this tight, though of course he can’t. It’s that he devised a solid-gold idea but is more eager to spin it into lead than he is to burnish it to a blinding shine. Nonetheless, he does manage to achieve one play of above-average dramatic worth under those circumstances — but, alas, only one.

That would be the second chapter, “Paraffin,” which has been directed with a quiet grace by Daniel Aukin (This at Playwrights Horizons and Back Back Back at Manhattan Theatre Club). Set on August 14, 2003, it looks at the intertwining lives and loves of the building’s present loser-inhabitants as they cope with not just multiple blackouts of their hearts but also the literal blackout that brought to screeching halt the entire Eastern Seaboard that day.

There’s something naturally powerful in the plight of Lucas (Jeremy Strong), an Iraq War vet who’s confined to a wheelchair but deeply in love with Margo (Julianne Nicholson), who just happens to be the wife of his brother Denny (William Apps) — both of whom live just down the hall. This close proximity to both joy and pain is compounded by Denny’s being a never-been rock musician with a serious drug problem and even deeper money woes, that have gotten him involved with some people of questionable legality. Each of them sees a path to a better life, but cannot follow it for reasons of appearances none of them wants to admit matter.

The Hallway Trilogy
Boyd, Jeremy Strong, and Nicholson.
Photo courtesy of Rattlestick Theatre.

The building’s superintendent, Kevin (Danny Mastrogiorgio), has a lot less baggage in his fondness for Margo’s friend Dena (Sue Jean Kim), but can’t get close enough to her to tell her how he feels — his passing around the latest Harry Potter book (a signed first edition!) is as close as he’s willing to come. The reserved Jewish neighbors upstairs (Robert Beitzel and Maria Dizzia), are not well prepared for wandering into the middle of all these problems, and no one is quite sure how to deal with the ghost of a young woman named Rose (Katherine Waterston) who hung herself in one of the nearby apartments half a century earlier.

Because neither weirdness nor sobriety is allowed to fully reign during “Paraffin,” it plays as one of Rapp’s sincerest works, on the level of Blackbird and Red Light Winter, with only a few eye-rolling or -covering moments. (The Polish gangster Leshik, played by Nick Lawson, engages in a lengthy discussion with Dena about the many ways his pets will rape Denny if his bills aren’t paid on time; and Denny is shown, uh, wiping himself in full view of the audience — and from the back, not the front.)

But the scenes set during the electricity-free evening (powerfully lit by Tyler Micoleau), a sort of impromptu block party in which everyone airs (and mostly deals with) their dangerous feelings, carry a piercing, playful strength that proves entertaining, enlightening, and unaffected, an extremely rare trifecta for Rapp. And one that, it should be noted, is superbly and subtly acted, with Strong doing some of his best work to date, channeling Lucas’s anger into a raging desire that can’t help but consume Margo, even though Nicholson makes an expert show of resisting it. Mastrogiorgio, Kim, and the others find rainbows of colors in these people that pierce through the potential weirdness to reveal pulsating humanity beneath.

Unfortunately, these accomplishments are seldom repeated — let alone approximated — in the other two plays. “Rose,” set in 1953, shows us the ghost while she was still alive: An aspiring actress whose claim to fame was just losing out on the title role in the 1952 revival of Anna Christie (to Celeste Holm), the young woman has come to the apartment building convinced that Eugene O’Neill is there and will want to see her. The fellow at the end of the hall (Guy Boyd) doesn’t look like O’Neill, but she’s convinced — even though the playwright supposedly died the night before.

There’s true passion in this story, especially when we see how Rose’s husband, Richard (Logan Marshall-Green), fits into her delusion. But that’s but a drop of water on “Rose,” which is otherwise loaded with eye-rolling diversions about mob interference, Italian restaurants, Communism, a guy who can’t stop thinking about the girl he saved from suicide but who wants nothing to do with him, and the Eastern-European family near the stairs that screams at each other all day in incomprehensible Russian. The bloated, sitcom-style writing misses the charm it’s aiming for, and Rapp’s own direction is too labored to create fun of its own or elicit any from the actors.

The Hallway Trilogy
Sue Jean Kim, Cancelmi, Logan Marshall-Green, Maria Dizzia.
Photo courtesy of Rattlestick Theatre.

The 2053 entry, titled “Nursing” and directed by Trip Cullman, is after more “different” than “fun” and gets it — at a price. By now, the floor has been turned into a clinical museum at which inhabitants in the newly disease-free world may observe from their theater seats (and behind the safety of surgical masks) terrible sicknesses being administered, suffered, and cured behind one-way glass. Our tour guide (Kim) shows us the crowning exhibit: Lloyd (Marshall-Green), who’s injected with sicknesses ranging from cholera to the plague and beyond, and the focal point of a movement that thinks eradicating infection from the world is a bad thing because it will cause people to lose all respect for life.

This is perhaps Rapp’s best idea of the three, and his deft handling of the relationship Lloyd develops with his nurses (Dizzia and Louis Cancelmi) and the alternately amused and terrified world outside suggests it’s the one he most grooved on. Cullman’s direction is also keen, and the actors (particularly Marshall-Green, who displays an astonishing range) are at their most game and determined here. But “Nursing” has nothing — nothing — to do with the preceding shows, and it falters the more it pretends it does or that it cares about the (supposed) overarching theme of how a supposedly nondescript location is given robust life by the people in it.

It’s for this same reason that The Hallway Trilogy as a whole does not really succeed: The hallway is simply not a strong enough character. Beowulf Boritt’s set is achingly nondescript, never looking of whatever era it’s supposed to inhabit. (The words “Mickey Mouse Is Watching,” scrawled onto the wall in 1953, is one of the few true concessions to period.) Attempts at through lines are half-hearted at best; Rose seems a promising source of continuity, but appears for only a few seconds in “Paraffin” and not at all in “Nursing”; and it’s never explained why the same nondescript upright piano occupies the hallway for a 100-year stretch.

For this kind of experiment to work, the plays can’t just be set in the same building — they must occupy the same universe. Otherwise, the gambit becomes a gimmick, something from Rapp’s rapidly greying bag of tricks. One must applaud Rapp’s ambition, even if The Hallway Trilogy ultimately proves that, even when he needs to the most, Rapp can’t stray far from his own artistic impulses. When given fullest form and affection, as in “Paraffin,” they can work. Otherwise, they come across as little more than rickety tract housing in the cookie-cutter development of Rapp’s ever-expanding, but rarely deepening, oeuvre.


The Hallway Trilogy
Through March 20
Rattlestick Theatre, 224 Waverly Place
Running Time: Each play runs about 90 minutes.
Tickets online and current performance schedule: www.rattlestick.org