Theater: “rogerandtom” Presents a Valuable Lesson in Breaking the Rules

Taylor Hooper Photography

Taylor Hooper Photography

Artists never take the easy way out, do they? Estranged, and having refused to speak to one another for five years, Tom, a playwright, has invited his brother, to attend his latest play, a supposed fence-mender. Of course, Roger (Eric T. Miller) soon begins to squirm in his seat, for it is rapidly apparent that rogerandtom, the play that both he and we are watching, isn’t much of a straightforward apology, and may in fact be passively-aggressively using its characters, Tom’s sister Penny (Suzy Jane Hunt) and her soon-to-be-divorced husband Richard (Jonathan Tindle), to take Roger to task for his numerous faults as an absent former alcoholic and–worse, to an emotional and artistic younger brother–a “standoffish, blue collar Everyman.” In fact, the whole thing begins to seem like an experimental set-up, with Penny explaining to Richard that her brother, Roger, who she has not seen in years, is due to show up any moment, and that they’re off to see their brother Tom’s play later that evening. When she calls to see what’s keeping him, a phone rings in the audience; Roger soon stands up and, apologizing to his fellow spectators, begins to exit the theater.

Abruptly, the lights change, and William, the actor playing Richard, explains that Tom has set up this elaborate piece specifically for Roger, and that — yes — it’s a bit of interactive theater, one that cannot end unless Roger faces his own greatest fear and joins him on stage. What follows is what you might expect if Charlie Kauffmann were adapting Christopher Durang’s The Actor’s Nightmare, as Roger attempts to come to terms with the obviously fictional environment in the hopes that he might somehow find actual truth within it. Navigating the fourth-wall while attempting to address a serious issue–theater as therapy–is tricky stuff, but director Nicholas Cotz (who directed both the 2003 premiere and the 2011 Edinburgh version) is familiar enough with the conceit to make it, well . . . not conceited. You can see the way Miller begins to shift from rolling his eyes and nervously glancing to the audience as he thanks a fellow “actor” for an empty bottle of beer to the way he becomes an invested participant in the proceedings — comforting an increasingly frantic Penny, who unlike William, is remains in character, freaking out each time Roger walks “through” a wall. (David Esler’s set is exceedingly smart, using tape to represent the floorplan and then playing around with the scale size of actual objects–like a half-size bed and refrigerator–to give the entire affair a dollhouse-like artificiality/foundation.) It’s a credit, too, that Julien Schwab’s script manages to maintain an comfortable blend of humor and drama (that sacrifices the values of neither), seen most clearly when Roger begins to dismantle the “reality” of the play with a menacing rage that cannot help but be comic, given the fact that he’s essentially throwing around empty boxes, yelling into prop telephones.

I hesitate to reveal anything more, for there’s more to rogerandtom than a clash between fiction and reality — there’s a meditation on the choices we make, the ways in which we communicate, and the persistent strength of illusion. That this takes place in a theater is no mistake, but how many of us have interacted with delusional people or utilized a theatrical narrative in our everyday life? When we cannot express ourselves in the real world, or when we are not happy with the responses we get, we turn to our imagination to help us bridge that gap, and that’s what Julien Schwab, through his intentionally single-worded subject, is getting at. If we have to cheat a little to get what we want, what we need, then so be it: rogerandtom has earned the right to break as many rules as it needs.

Press ticket; general admission.

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