Off Broadway Reviews
Not a literal death sentence, mind you. (Well, er, not exactly.) But it is a jolting reminder of the tenuous boundaries that exist between where we are and who we are, which, not coincidentally, is Holter's general theme. His specificand far less sharply carvedmessage is, you guessed it, about education, and Exit Strategy, which premiered at the Jackalope Theatre Company in Chicago in 2014 was written in response to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel's decision to close dozens of the city's schools. What does it feel like to be on the wrong side of the literal bulldozer that's mere seconds away from razing your dreams for a brighter future?
That's a good question, but one that gets considerably less compelling the more directly Holter addresses it. He's at the top of his game in the opening scene, when milquetoast vice principal Ricky (Ryan Spahn) must deliver the news of Tumbldn's shuddering to its three-decade dragon-lady teacher, Pam (Deirdre Madigan). She has no illusions of what this development means to her or the students, and isn't afraid to express her feelings, which lets Holter unleash through her a vivid string of urban poetry that beautifully captures the state of an anguished mind in freefall. (It's also liberally peppered with expletives that shouldn't be printed here.)
"Nothing shocks me," Pam spits. "Forty percent of our seniors graduated last year, Vice. One could say that I had a feeling. There's a gang that operates out of that 7-11 on the corner, they knock into me when I'm picking up smokes. Sure, I had an inkling. There are 20 computers. For 3,000 kids. Leaks. Holes. Even the paint's trying to run away from this place, Vice, even the paint. Nobody's having a good time."
This contest of wills, between the disrespected administrator and the front-lines sergeant, draws the battle lines that will be in play for the full 90-minute evening, while reminding you thatwhatever their backgroundsthey are on the same side. And by establishing the opposing poles of the conflict right out of the gate, that leaves Holter well upwards of an hour to explore whether, in this kind of situation, it's preferable to go down quietly or to go down swinging.
What follows is a predictable travelogue through the final nine months of Tumbldn's existence, with major stops at the group's internal friction (there are a couple of deeply divided factions, and a minimum of one illicit affair), clashing viewpoints on both the immediate and distant futures, activism in the form of a protest march ("If there's one thing people don't like," its surprise organizer reveals, "it's a big happy mob of color coming right towards them"), and other such box-checking waypoints. But the intimate relationship between the cause and those downstream of it is utterly lost; talking points are a central focus of the dialogue after the opening scene, in which they're the razor-honed catalyst, and they're nowhere near as potent, and not anything that Fagan, despite his aggressive staging, can make exciting.
Holter's writing still occasionally thrills; in a class of its own, for example, is Sadie's angsty, time-killing rant as the march is in its planning stages: "I aint having it. It is almost 9:30. On a Thursday. And we are still at school. I aint havin' it. I need to go home I need to rest up I need to sleep but now, for the last twenty minutes Ive been waiting here for an administrator who has shown me nothing but disrespect, while our school runs through fads, while Im told to google this and indie-ho-ho that, excuse me but no, no, I dont ho-ho for nobody but nobody, no I aint havin it' I aint snacking on it Im not about this." And a late-show fencing match of insults is good for its self-consciously over-the-top approach at defining the nebulous bond between two otherwise loosely connected characters.
But aside from Pam and to a lesser degree Ricky, the characters are sparklingly dull, which doesn't aid the actors in making them three-dimensional. Madigan is terrific as Pam, layering a lacerating coarseness on top of real pain, and Spahn effectively depicts Ricky's struggle to fit in where he doesn't belong. The other portrayals are all professional if unmemorable, hampered by the material that keeps too much of their humanity under wraps; Andrew Boyce's set, Jessica Pabst's costumes, and Thom Weaver's lights do a better job of communicating what's at stake at every stage of Tumbldn's wind-down.
This ensures that the school is a crucial character, and that's no small achievement from either the designers or Fagan. Ideally, though, it would be one voice among many, not a presence so overwhelming that it reads as far bigger than anyone within its walls. This disconnect is not the point of Exit Strategy, and prevents the play from packing the chest-crushing punch it so obviously wants to unload. We can relate, but only externallyand that's not enough. If you attend or work at a school, you might well love it with all your heart. But if you don't, an hour and a half of bland pontificating isn't enough to kindle a romance.