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Ring Twice for Miranda

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 12, 2017

Katie Kleiger and Graeme Malcolm
Photo by Russ Rowland

A politically and economically ravaged dystopia, divided into "districts" that are presided over by lord-like dictators who luxuriate in comfort and wealth while everyone below them is barely able to scrape by, sounds like an ideal setting for a withering critique of our own social system. Add the issue of sex, specifically how both men and women can use it to get what they crave in this type of crumbling society, and you have all the makings for an incisive, perhaps bloodletting deconstruction of where we might be headed if consumption is what we allow to consume us. But although Alan Hruska's new play Ring Twice for Miranda, which just opened at City Center Stage II, trades in these compelling ideas, its impact is more like that of a wet noodle to your shin than a baseball bat to your temple.

The biggest problem is that neither Hruska nor his director, Rick Lombardo, knows how to communicate what it's supposed to be about. The early scenes, set in the mansion of Sir, the district's overseer, alternately suggest a domestic comedy and an Upstairs Downstairs-style drama. The central figures appear to be Miranda (Katie Kleiger) and Elliot (George Merrick), respectively Sir's chambermaid and butler, fretting about their roles now that they're the only two servants left in the house. Before long, Elliot is summoned (via three bell chimes, as opposed to Miranda's two) to Sir but meets with his chief of staff, Gulliver (Daniel Pearce), who informs Elliot that his services are no longer required.

We're now knee-deep in class tragedy, as Elliot must consider how to make it on his own without the skills to survive in the ruins of the world outside the gates. But wait—what if Miranda intercedes on Elliot's behalf? She has a certain pull on Sir, after all, given her many closed-door, ahem, meetings with him. Power-play feminism is now the prevailing concept, though it doesn't last long once Miranda and Elliot escape into the world and encounter the distraught denizens outside, who include the British Chester (William Connell), his lady friend Anouk (Talia Thiesfield), and Felix (Ian Lassiter), a plumber who wields a mean wrench. With all their zany ideas about car seats, drug smuggling, and petrol chasing, they plunge us right into post-Armageddon farce. The second act covers far less ground, but is as jumbled as it extends these plot lines to their unnatural conclusions. So one must wonder: What exactly is Ring Twice for Miranda?

Aside from an almost unbearable two-hour evening, I have no idea. Hruska defuses any potential insight with his quick dips into apocalyptic absurdism, ostensibly in imitation of (or paying homage to) Samuel Beckett, though he knew you had to either go all-in or give up—half measures only make things look messy, as is the case here. The final scene in Act I, in which Miranda and Elliot jockey for a seat in Chester and Anouk's car (one of the very few on the roads, apparently) ought to have an undercurrent of urgency, but there's none. And when we see inside the bedchamber of Sir (Graeme Malcolm) and discover the unique way Miranda pleases him, what's intended to be shocking is merely eye-rolling, and so far-fetched that it cheapens everyone and everything around it.

Katie Kleiger, George Merrick, William Connell,
and Talia Thiesfield
Photo by Russ Rowland

Mood is a tricky thing to create and even more challenging to sustain, but you can usually go along with anything if it's consistent. Because you sense that Hruska has no idea what this play's mood is supposed to be, you spend the entire time waiting for someone or something to crystallize the conflicting notions, and when none comes, you become immensely frustrated. Laughter and revulsion can go hand-in-hand, but both qualities must be earned, not simply name-checked. Worse, Lombardo has imparted no discipline of his own to fill in the many gaps Hruska has left, despite a physical production (set by Jason Sherwood, costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, lighting by Matthew Richards) that suggests he does understand the stakes.

He has, alas, allowed each of his seven actors to appear in an entirely different play, which severely aggravates the uncertainties of tone that already predominate. Only Kleiger, who fairly approximates a woman wedged between self-preservation and a warped integrity, and Malcolm, who projects a moderately convincing (if one-note) authoritarianism, are even in the ballpark of what could theoretically be correct. Pearce pushes too hard to emphasize the threat Gulliver poses, and instead makes him look silly. Merrick and Connell emote with such broad strokes, typically through shouting line deliveries, that they look like amateurs auditioning for a YouTube sitcom; and Thiesfield and Lassiter basically wrap themselves in ethnic caricatures, without either using them to make points about their characters or peeling them away to reveal human beings underneath.

That's what's wrong throughout, though: None of off-kilter weirdness ever resolves into something we can, or rather must, associate with. This isn't regimented or coherent enough to be satire. If it's intended as serious drama, its frequent comedy is at odds with rather than in tune with the underlying distress. And if laughs are the goal, their dark shadows are forever fighting them for focus rather than enhancing their necessity. The sole respite from this confusion is Sir, who, by virtue of an established, ironclad morality, knows what he believes and why, and knows how to get it. This probably isn't ideal, true, but when Sir was faced with the prospect of throwing to the wolves all the hanging-on idiots around him and starting over from scratch, I related to him in a way I didn't—and couldn't—anything else in Ring Twice for Miranda.

Ring Twice for Miranda
Through April 16
New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: