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April 17, 2017

Two New Works, Neither Weak: Making a Killing and Shades

University Theater (UT)’s New Work Week, a two-weekend exhibition of new student works, has a reputation: the shows are notoriously spotty, says a second-year closely associated with UT. It can be hard to know if your $5 ticket will score you a preview of the next theater great (Broadway darling Hamilton debuted in a reading festival!) or an hour-long primer on everything they tell you to avoid at the Yale School of Drama.

A reputation like this inspires trepidation. On the elevator ride up to the performance space on the Logan Center’s fifth floor, I overheard a tall fella say to his short friend, “I’m worried it’ll sell out!” Quipped the friend, “Really, don’t be.”

I caught two shows at New Work Week, Making a Killing by third-year Val Bodurtha and Shades by fourth-year Cynthia Campos Costanzo. As two shows are a tiny portion of the works presented, this piece should not be treated as a comprehensive review of the festival. Yet these two plays captured the incredible breadth of tone, theme, and quality that characterizes New Work Week. Was it spotty? Oh, absolutely. Were there bad moments? Of course! But I’m pleased to say there were good ones too. 

That said, the good moments were sadly sporadic. Making a Killing is a superbly funny, thoughtful vignette of Tom (second-year Jacob Goodman)—a twenty-something still joined at the hip to his mother (second-year Ali Futter)—who collaborates with a burned-out but creative murderer (fourth-year Alex Hearn). Tom’s quest: to become the next famous serial killer. A premise this strong will walk on its own—happily, director and third-year Natalie Pasquinelli ensured far more than just that. Tasked with only reading scripts, her actors inhabited their characters convincingly. Goodman portrayed a downtrodden, yet optimistic millennial facing insecurity about his limited success and reliance on his mother; Hearn presented a delightfully disheveled Leonard, the ex-killer longing for his glory days. Though there wasn’t much to consider beyond the characters, given the bare setting of the read-through, Making a Killing was able to keep the action engaging despite a scrutiny that could kill a weaker play. Sharp changes in setting clearly inspired by the cutaway style of shows like Family Guy introduced new settings, challenges, and opportunities for comic relief. While their suddenness at times felt jarring and better suited for television, they kept the play moving forward. The theater might seem an odd place for a TV trope, but its inclusion helped the play’s 45 minutes feel like 20.

Beyond its deft humor, the play also delved into deeper questions of success and failure. Tom is unable to generate an original idea; Leonard’s formerly original murder plots have been poached by crime shows. It’s impossible to get a break, but still they persist—a surprisingly bittersweet takeaway for an otherwise campy affair. The end of the play is similarly challenging. In a fairly predictable twist, Tom and Leonard take a joyous, bloody romp through the HBO writer’s room: We face both the lesson that murder is a victory (a less effective emotional prompt) and the realization that they ultimately failed to beat an unjust system (much better). I spent much of those 45 minutes laughing and still came away with things to think about. I’d call that a success.

The second work, Shades, had a harder time getting off the ground. Marie (Ali Futter) is a private detective with ADHD. (In this universe, this condition manifests itself as a human entity called a shade.) She agrees to help Mark (second-year Miles White), her boyfriend, look for his missing niece, May (fourth-year Michaela Voit). They finally find her in a well-intentioned but illegitimate therapy center, where she is reunited with the family. It’s a mouthful.

Even more confusing was how much of the play dealt in long, slow-feeling scenes despite the depth and potential richness of the conflict: talking in Mark’s car for roughly 20 minutes, for instance, or spending five minutes speaking to McDonald’s employees. Treating a mental illness as a physical manifestation—perhaps a little derivative of Pixar’s Inside Out—is an interesting idea, albeit imperfectly executed. Briefly and superficially introduced at the beginning, it’s a device neglected for most of the play. It feels forced, tacked onto characters who otherwise demonstrate no unique personhood. Although it returns at the end of the play to effectively drive tension between Marie and May, this inconsistent treatment renders their mental illness an afterthought, an accessory—not what the playwright meant to convey, but an unfortunate consequence nonetheless.

This particular problem of characterization points to a deeper issue—the writing was not very strong, with most characters speaking in the same earnest, affectionate register. Even the McDonald’s staff, a clear opportunity to break from the mold of the rest of the characters, was assigned the same tone. It was difficult to imagine the shades as well-conceived characters given this monotony of voice. The play also tended towards the sentimental, with extended romantic scenes between Mark and Marie that could’ve been pared down to greater effect, and a heartfelt reunion between estranged daughter and family that felt confused and forced. Weren’t we just dealing with the conflict between the daughter, who feels that her mental illness hasn’t been properly recognized, and her family? Apparently not. Further, many complex issues are introduced in such straw-man forms as to make both their resolution and conflict trivial. The therapist is a literal fake, no degree—of course May shouldn’t be visiting him. That’s obvious. But what about her parents pushing her to medicate? What about when she refuses therapy altogether? There are interesting questions to ask, but Shades dodges most of them.

I don’t want to be too hard on the play. It is devilishly hard to establish complex characters with enough nuance to portray mental illness in the span of an hour and 20 minutes. Taking on an ambitious, wandering plot can be rewarding, but is difficult to keep compelling. And there were strong moments, too. In the ending, Marie, the only one who recognizes May’s mental illness, calms May down instead of her mother—it’s a poignant and difficult moment, with May’s mother especially powerless.

So, yes, certainly, New Work Week is spotty. But it’s also an unusual opportunity to see the process of writing a script, the work and revision involved, and to develop a sense for the challenge of turning characters and words on paper into something that lives and breathes. It isn’t perfect, no—neither play was. But in some way, I think, that’s not the point. 

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