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In The Room

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 27, 2016

Robert Karma Robinson, Susan Neuffer, Reuben Barsky,
and Jacob Perkins
Photo by Jeremy Daniel Photography

"Imagination + Structure = Art." With these words scrawled on a whiteboard, an instructor kicks off the first session of a writing workshop in the premiere production of Lawrence Dial's naturalistic, intimate, and absorbing play In The Room at the Alchemical Theatre.

The inspirational quote seems straightforward enough, a way to get things going for the random collection of amateurs who have gathered for the class. But what they don't fully appreciate is that the road to creative imagination will take them through a lot of unsettling truths along the way. And not even the instructor, Seymour (Matt Harrington), will be immune.

Much like Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation, to which In The Room bears a striking resemblance, the play is composed of short scenes that take place over the period of several weeks. During that time, we slowly get to know each of the half dozen participants as they begin to let down their guard.

In Baker's play, the setting was a suburban community center and the class was an acting workshop. Here the setting is a studio in New York where a production of Seymour's one successful play took place some years before. Teaching the workshop may help him find a way to return to his own writing.

In The Room, deftly directed by Adam Knight, is well suited to the small space where it is being performed. The audience is seated in close proximity to the actors, and most of the action takes place around a pair of folding tables, where the characters participate in writing exercises and eventually begin to read aloud from their work-in-progress. As the participants open up, we feel we are privy to some very personal conversations.

Seymour is quite diligent about protecting feelings, insisting that any comments about each other's writing be confined to encouragement and discussing what they like about it. As anyone who has shared a creative work understands, everyone is quite vulnerable, especially as they begin to reveal things about themselves. None of this is handled melodramatically; it's just the truth of it that will either shut them down or free them up.

It also happens that at least some of the participants are not strangers to each other, which adds the weight of additional baggage to the proceedings. There are no grand revelations, but at least some of the characters emerge all the stronger for the experience. One of these is Scott (Jacob Perkins), barely out of his teens and seemingly the most clueless member of the group. It's not clear what he is looking for, and he does seem a misfit, but when he does emerge from his shell, it's quite an event.

Also compelling is the growing friendship between Jessie (Robert Karma Robinson) and Clementine (Susan Neuffer), a much older woman who is empathetic, spirited, and thoroughly open to new experiences. We also learn some unsettling things about the relationship between Herman (Reuben Barsky) and Lydia (Chelsea Melone), and about Seymour and his one-time love Rainer (Suzy Jane Hunt), who has mixed motives for being part of the class. In the end, we feel we have been engaged with authentic characters. They may turn out to be ships that pass in the night, but all of them have been changed from their experience in the writing workshop.

In The Room
Through November 13
The Alchemical Theatre, 104 West 14th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: BrownPaperTickets

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