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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Mixture of Absurdism and Literalness Fails to Ignite
in Torpid middlemen

Also see Bob's reviews of True Story and Bubble Boy


Duncan M. Rogers and David Friedlander
The 80-minute one-act tentatively absurdist comedy middlemen is the beneficiary of a sympathetic, well-staged production at Long Branch's phenomenally active and ambitious New Jersey Rep. However, at the end of the day, the splendid work of actors Duncan M. Rogers and David Friedlander, director Marc Geller, set designer Jessica Parks and the balance of the artistic team only puts into bold relief just how airless, claustrophobic and dreary a play David Jenkins has given us.

Stanley Cahill (Duncan M. Rogers) and Michael Aaronson (David Friedlander) have arrived early for work in what feels like the dead of night at their just across the hall from one another's offices at a financial investment firm. The two are financial research analysts who are in the process of completing a report. The older Stanley is senior to the younger, very nervous Michael, and strongly imposes his questionable status as Michael's superior. Absurdist style, although they are the only people in the building (the elevators aren't even in operation), only today will they come to notice that, from among what had once been thousands of employees, they are the last two remaining.

Michael keeps getting mysterious, troubling phone calls about the financial collapse of "Bolivia." This catastrophic bankruptcy was preceded by reports in which Michael falsified numbers at Stanley's direction in order to cover up this impending financial disaster. Although both men are insignificant employees who only acted as they were required to by evil, rich and powerful firm principals, it is they who are left holding the bag when they find subpoenas on their outer office door ordering them to testify before a government agency.

One can readily see issues and ideas meant to bring heft to middlemen. The greed and corruption of Wall Street and how it spreads its tentacles to ensnarl its decent, dependent minions who pay the price for the avarice of the "one percent" who walk away unscathed. On an existential level, the play can be seen as illustrating man's inability to chart his own destiny because of the existence of immutable forces which we can never fully understand or control. (By some quirk of mind, I find myself thinking of Maxwell Anderson's lyric, "We are lost out here in the stars." I mention it because it expresses this idea with a rare, but grand, directness, simplicity and artistry.)

However, ideas should be supported by compelling characters, engrossing situations and theatrical art. The bleakness and absurdism may recall Waiting for Godot, but there is none of the anticipation (no matter how often we see it), lightning bolts of life, and comic invention of Beckett present here. In fact, the absurdism is only a cloak for a play which timidly retreats to mundanely real details. Particularly jarring are Stanley's telephone conversations with his wife (and later with Michael) about his five-year-old son and his acting out in school by smearing his feces all over the bathroom walls. This is Judd Apatow territory, and such every day, banal angst bumps up hard against bleak absurdity. Given the very realistic underlying situation behind the collapse of the financial concern presented here, the absurdist comedy may just a cover for the kind of political agenda play that has been sought by government administrators of grants for the arts.

The comedy, which includes a recalcitrant photocopier and Stanley and Michael hitting the floor as they hide in fear at a knock on their office door, draws only the mildest of scattered laughter. With the help of the production, the hermetically sealed office area is an oppressively absurdist and existential hell. However, there is neither a deep existential play to lend value to the leaden effect of experiencing it nor scintillating, inventive writing to alleviate such an effect.

Although (insofar as I can see) middlemen was first produced in 2009 at Manhattan's Walkerspace, to this day, it lacks an ending. After a little violent acting out (which peters out) thrown in for no particular purpose, the play just says good-bye without putting any punctuation mark on the text ("See you in the morning"). It is such a tepid good-bye that it leaves the audience wondering whether or not it has ended. It takes a second or so after the lights come up on the bowing actors to be certain.

Duncan M. Rogers does an extraordinarily fine job of fleshing out the portrait of Stanley Cahill that playwright David Jenkins has provided. His Stanley is a preening, self-satisfied jerk who has a rose colored picture of his abilities and importance. However, his enthusiasm for his job is palpable. By establishing this strongly, Rogers gives himself the room to unravel ever more precipitously over the course of the play. Thus, the skill of Rogers, the solid professional actor, is interesting to watch. That there isn't enough depth and nuance in the script to allow emotional involvement with Stanley is not attributable to Rogers.

David Friedlander performs solidly as the even less developed Michael Aaronson. Michael is a shallow young man, and Jenkins does not provide any depth or details in drawing him.

If anything, Jessica Parks has been too successful in designing a complex, detailed and claustrophobic office setting that makes one want to scream, "HELP! Let me out." It is a nightmare, going where Jenkins falsely indicates that he wants to go. Director Marc Geller has elicited strong performances and made every moment of the play as sharp, clear and pointed as humanly possible.

middlemen continues performances (Evenings: Thursday - Saturday 8 PM/ Matinees: Saturday 3 PM; Sunday 2 PM) through December 8, 2013, at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740; box office: 732-229-3166; online: www.njrep.org.

middlemen by David Jenkins; directed by Marc Geller

Cast
Stanley Cahill.................Duncan M. Rogers
Michael Aaronson............David Friedlander


Photo: Marc Geller


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- Bob Rendell



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