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C.O.A.L. (Confessions of a Liar)

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Jackson Tanner and Mirirai Sithole.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Beware. C.O.A.L. (Confessions of a Liar), playwright David Brian Colbert's tale of a charming young man for whom falsehoods have become a way of life, is a trap whose light tone about small town quirkiness and surface conformity masks a multitude of sins.

The territory explored by the 80-minute play, on view at 59E59 Theaters, is a sadly familiar one. So its punch comes not from its revelations about neglect, abuse, and betrayal but from the style of its telling, one that brings to mind Paula Vogel's similarly-designed 1997 award-winning powerhouse How I Learned to Drive that lured us in with its air of offbeat humor.

While the playwright does not have quite the polish as Ms. Vogel in terms of her gift with language and satire, he does manage nicely with his depiction of off-kilter life in West Virginia coal country during the 1980s and 1990s. ("Welcome to West Virginia. Wild and Wonderful" reads a road sign flashed on the on-stage screen—one of the many projections that give us a sense of place). More importantly, C.O.A.L. has a power to disturb that creeps up slowly on its audience, so that its full impact may hit even more strongly in retrospect than it does as events are unfolding.

The play itself is the type that you might expect to be performed as a one-person confessional show, but here there is a quartet of actors who present the story. At times, the characters—identified in the program as Woman, Man, Girl, and Boy—represent various aspects of the young man at the center. At other times they become parents, teachers, or peers. The skill of the talented cast, under Craig Baldwin's careful direction, helps to keep any confusion at bay.

During the course of the play we learn how it is that Boy, who refers to himself as "Coal," has learned to drape himself in a safety net of lies. We learn, too, of the dangers inherent in failing to completely embrace the demands of a rigidly defined world, and why it is that Coal and his peers view the main bridge leading out of town as an avenue of escape, one way or the other.

As Coal, Jackson Tanner does a particularly effective job of making his character a sympathetic one, someone we root for—until we no longer can. At the performance I attended, the playwright himself took on the role of Man (he is slated to be replaced by Evander Duck), alternating between the characters of Coal's short-tempered Vietnam vet father and Coal's predatory swim coach. Lisa Bostnar as the Jesus-spouting Woman and Mirirai Sithole as Girl also do fine work alternating among several different roles in a play that grapples with the underbelly of small town America.

C.O.A.L. (Confessions of a Liar)
Through March 22
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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