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Theatre Review by James Wilson - May 21, 2019

Alex Hurt, Jasmine Batchelor, and Megan Ketch
Photo by Matthew Murphy

The title of Bess Wohl's terrific new play, Continuity, slyly shifts in meaning through the course of the performance. As a comedy about the making of a disaster film, the term refers to the attention to consistency of cinematic detail and narrative logic. Since this is also a drama about global warming, the word signifies the necessity of taking steps to preserve life on this planet while also referencing persistent government inaction in preventing world destruction. Then, as a comedy-drama that deals with one of the most pressing environmental and political issues, the succinct title suggests an artistic ideal of motivating audiences to continually focus on the problem long after they have left the theatre. This may sound like a heavy burden for a one-hundred-minute play, but while Continuity, currently running at Manhattan Theatre Club, is full of provocative and philosophical ideas, it is as funny as it is smart.

As she did in Small Mouth Sounds, the ingenious, mostly dialogue-free show that premiered in 2015, Wohl has peopled her play with an assortment of oddballs, egomaniacs, and damaged souls. Described as a "play in six takes," Continuity revolves around the filming of one particular scene for a small-budget, global-warming disaster movie. The six scenes take place on a film set in New Mexico, where the crew has constructed a Hollywood version of a cracked glacier with billowing plastic snow. (Adam Rigg's scenic design effectively juxtaposes the desert and arctic environments as well as the natural and cinematographic worlds. Brenda Abbandandolo's costumes contribute to the playful contradictions.)

In the play, the movie's harried director Maria (Rosal Col√≥n) desperately wants to wrap the shot before dusk to take advantage of the perfect natural lighting. (Isabella Byrd's lighting design expertly captures the waning daylight.) Maria not only has to contend with periodic airplane interruptions (for as she sardonically says, "And of course nobody bothered to check on the flight paths"), but her trio of actors do not make getting the shot easy. First, there's Lily (Jasmine Batchelor), playing a minor role in the film as "the scientist who dies," who cannot seem to provide enough subtlety in her violent death scene. Then there is Jake (Alex Hurt), who was cast because he's "the hot guy," and who is easily distracted by monkey videos on his phone and nutritional concerns. Most difficult of all is Nicole (Megan Ketch), who passively aggressively demands rewrites and has particular ideas about hair and costumes — not just for herself but for the other actors as well.

Added to this is the screenwriter, Caxton (Darren Goldstein). Previously romantically involved with Maria, he is currently having a fling with the film's leading lady. As a result, he tends to bend to the will of the actress over the director. In addition, a daffy, real-live scientist (Max Baker) — as opposed to the one who dies in the film — periodically wanders onto the set to explain the film's inaccuracies and lectures the company on the importance of scientific truthfulness. Finally, there's a flimsy set piece representing a chunk of ice that requires constant replacement. Even after repeated reminders about its inability to bear weight, people keep sitting on it. Thankfully, a dutiful but beleaguered production assistant (Garcia, who is hilariously deadpan) is always on hand to meticulously put a new one in its place.

Audiences may recognize the character types, but Wohl adds unexpected layers to each of them. Jake, for instance, appears to be emotionally and intellectually obtuse as the stereotypical Hollywood beefcake figure. He movingly describes, however, his experience of being bullied for being a theatre geek (which he refers to with a more pejorative word) after playing the part of Tevye in a Texas high school production of Fiddler on the Roof. Like the symbolic glaciers of the film within the play, the characters' own icy protections gradually melt away as they bake under the Southwest sun.

Rachel Chavkin's direction perfectly modulates the silliness of the film production, the underlying sadness and disappointment of the characters, and the urgency of the central issue about global warming. Additionally, the performers work superbly as an ensemble, and they create rich, individual personas from the overly broad figures they could have been. The play also includes a number of off-stage characters, such as production crew members, some of whom are heard through walkie-talkie transmissions. (Mikaal Sulaiman provided the first-rate sound design.) The production is surprisingly intimate, but it skillfully creates the bustle of an on-location shoot (including refreshments from the all-important craft services table).

Continuity is not a perfect play. A few of the scenes go on a bit too long, and some of the character revelations could use further exploration. For example, there are allusions to Maria's fraught relationship with the studio powers, and the reasons behind this have not been fully explained. Still, even with its imperfections, this is a play that continues to resonate even after the sun goes down.

Through June 9
Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center, The Studio at Stage II, 131 West 55th Street
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