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Bottom Of The World

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Brendan Griffin, Aubrey Dollar, Peter Maloney, Kristin Griffith, and Brandon J. Dirden.
Photo by Ari Mintz.

In the theatre, darkness is frequently more illuminating than light. When you have to work to drag even the tiniest bit of hope or faith from characters, how can you not feel you've accomplished more than if their happier sides are on display from minute one onstage? That Lucy Thurber's play Bottom of the World, which the Atlantic Theater Company just opened at its Stage 2 space, succeeds at all given how hard you don't have to work is a happy circumstance, if one that won't inspire much satisfied celebration.

Thurber's previous plays in New York, which have included Killers and Other Family, Where We're Born, Stay, and Scarcity (which was produced at the larger Atlantic theater in 2007), reflected the playwright's willingness to go shadowy if she had to. Her works often focus on friends and family who aren't exactly what they appear, but are nonetheless a vibrant (if sometimes unwanted) part of life. This play, dealing as it does with selves we aren't but wish we could be and sisters that no longer are but we wish still were, would seem to be in line with what Thurber's done before.

But through the imaginary or deceptive elements of her other plays, Thurber tapped into deeper and more compelling visions of humanity and narrative than she does here. Director Caitriona McLaughlin's production is handsome, but the script is so unassuming you're never convinced it needs to play so many existential mind games. Or, for that matter, that despite its underlying message about returning to an active life after an emotional upheaval, it has any identifiable need to exist in the first place.

Not that pointlessness is necessarily undesirable in and of itself. A mood or charm piece along these lines could be perfectly acceptable, even heartwarming: Abigail (Crystal A. Dickinson) is still forlorn following the death of her novelist sister, Kate, and turns to her mental invocation of her sister (played by Jessica Love) and her final blockbuster book as a way to cope with her grief. The book explores what it might be like if the present-day sisters, who have fathers of different races (and look it), had been born men a half dozen or so decades earlier, and soon those brothers, Josh and Ely (Brendan Griffin and Brandon J. Dirden) become an unavoidable part of Abigail's world.

Likewise, the juxtaposition of relationships should also provoke, depicting as it does both Abigail's unwillingness to properly return the affections of the new woman she's seeing (K.K. Moggie) and Josh's trouble adjusting to married life with Dana (Aubrey Dollar), who's not so secretly in love with Ely. Add in the additional layer of Abigail's friend Susan (Dollar again) faced with the separation and divorce of her own parents (Peter Maloney and Kristin Griffith), and you have all the ingredients for what should be a fine and fulfilling recipe.

Except, that is, for the salt, which has been forgotten entirely. The intertwining of the past and the present, the straight and the gay, and the young and the old all seem more obligatory than essential: never wrong, but also never wholly right. Thurber and McLaughlin have both done an outstanding job at differentiating between the various colliding realities, but never build up to anything that makes it all seem worth the trouble. Perhaps Abigail has changed some by play's end, as she comes to understand Kate's writing in a way she never could when she was alive, but the play stops well short of suggesting that similar change is possible - or not - for you in the real world.

If that's not the goal, there's no clue given to what is - and that aimlessness becomes its own problem, even over the course of 90 never-unpleasant minutes. That the characters tend to speak in clipped, poetic shorthand doesn't help. At times it seems Thurber is paying tribute (if in a folksier way) to the Edward Albee of the just-opened Me, Myself & I, imparting that play's sense of "excess by less" and the lack of any particular locomotion.

Some much-needed energy is derived from Walt Spangler's set, which smashes together a modern apartment with a makeshift plywood oak tree that consumes the past and threatens the present as well, and the evocative rustic music (by Tim Lawrence, Robert Kaplowitz, and onstage fiddler Alexander Sovronsky and banjo-mandolin player Bennett Sullivan). For that matter, the performances too engage, with Dickinson a movingly tortured presence, Love a smart a shining beacon of memory, and Griffin and Dollar and Maloney and Griffith making spirited couples who are ideally poised and positioned to drive the action.

Unfortunately, it never starts up - at least in any significant way. Bottom of the World seems much like Kate: endless potential that's never allowed to reach its fullest, completed form, and leaves behind a collection of impressions that show it at its best but still somewhat less than outstanding. Whether the play is suffering from a shortage of darkness or light may be open for debate, but you never feel certain that Thurber knows which lamps should be off or on.

Bottom Of The World
Through October 3
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street between 8th & 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule: TicketCentral