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Eat the Runt

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Have you ever been at a play and found yourself wishing that it had been cast differently? Or perhaps that one actor in the play was playing another's role? Wish no longer. Eat the Runt, the new play by Avery Crozier that opened last night at the American Place Theatre, puts the casting squarely in the audience's hands but doesn't forget to engage the audience's minds as well.

During the pre-show "audition" sequence, host Andrew Robbins explains that Eat the Runt is a play without pronouns. This more than proves to be the case for Crozier has written Eat the Runt so that any of the show's roles could be performed by any actor regardless of their age, sex, or skin color. The eight actors - of various heights and weights, sexes, and ethnicities - all look very different but Robbins assures the audience that all the actors know all the lines and can therefore play any part. It is up to the audience to decide which actor will play whom.

Though audience participation of this sort has been used in plays before, such as The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Eat the Runt marks one of the first times (if not the first time) an electronic voting system has been used for this purpose. The system, designed by Quick Tally Interactive Systems, utilizes handheld devices, a computer backstage, and two television monitors on either side of the proscenium to tabulate the results and present them to the audience in the form of a bar graph. The entire process is easy for the audience, happens quickly, and is scripted so that the process is entertaining in its own right.

The "casting" process of "casting" is very simple. Each of the actors "auditions" with a line or two that outlines the character for whom they're reading. After each actor has read, the members of the audience use the handheld electronic devices attached to the seats in front of them to vote for their favorite. Seven roles are cast in this fashion; since there are eight actors, Robbins informs us that one will be going home early. When that actor has left, the play proper begins.

If you are worrying about whether or not the play can live up to its unique presence, you don't have to. Though not high art, Eat the Runt is constructed in such a way as to use its casting, whatever it may be at that particular performance, to good effect. There is a fair amount of comedy, but Eat the Runt is more about truth, identity, and perception - how we look at ourselves, and how we look at others. The situations may be bizarre, and some of the dialogue unusual, but the play never sacrifices these themes because of its casting.

The casting (whatever it may be) actually accentuates these ideas. For example, when the show's primary focus, Merritt, who is interviewing for the position of grant writer at a museum, meets the person who manages that position, the relationship that forms between the two of them will take on very different connotations just based on the sex of the two performers. Later on, when Merritt or another interviewer, makes claims or statements about a certain racial or religious group, the result could be enormously funny, or it could make you sit up and pay closer attention.

Though you can never be absolutely sure what you'll get, there are a few guarantees. Matthew von Waaden's direction will remain pointed and funny, and the gleamingly attractive modern set by Jerome Martin, illuminated by Michele Disco's lights, will always contribute quite a bit to the proceedings.

Last, but far from least, there are the actors. Kelli K. Barnett, Linda Cameron, LaKeith Hoskin, Weil Richmond, Thom Rivera, Keesha Sharp, Curtis Mark Williams, and Jama Williamson all seemed more than prepared for the daunting task at the performance I attended, and never visibly missed a beat. One actor had never played their role prior to that performance, and others had only one or two performances worth of experience. Their work never seemed less polished than the actors who may have played their roles as many as six previous times.

Eat the Runt, for its unusual beginning, does not take long to move beyond its gimmick. Whichever actor is playing which role, the characters in the play will find their pre-conceived notions about people challenged. Anyone attending this play should expect that to be the same, but little else. Plays always change depending on the audience, but perhaps never more than in Eat the Runt.

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Eat the Runt
by Avery Crozier
Directed by Matthew von Waaden
The American Place Theatre
111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online: Tele-charge