Review by Sarah Lucie
Julien Schwab’s new play “rogerandtom” defies all expectations. The production purportedly “obliterates” the fourth wall, which inspired some anxiety in me. Was this going to be one of those productions requiring audience participation? Would the actors disrespect my personal space (the production company is, after all, named Personal Space Theatrics)? The answer to these questions is a grateful “no,” yet even while working within theatrical conventions, “rogerandtom” compels the audience to reconsider how we experience theater. No awkward audience participation necessary.
The play begins as an exercise in naturalism as Penny (Suzy Jane Hunt) mimes her activities in a bare apartment. Penny is awaiting her brother Roger’s arrival, only to be greeted by her soon-to-be-ex-husband Richard (Jonathan Tindle), who is in the process of packing up and moving out. When she gets impatient and calls Roger, a cell phone in the audience rings—it turns out that Roger (Eric T. Miller) has been here all along.
The simple play structure as we know it is over, and Miller has the challenging job of portraying an audience member who doesn’t know that he’s part of the show. And Roger is played by an actor playing an audience member who is maybe also Tom, the fictional playwright of “rogerandtom.” And that’s only the beginning of the play’s twists and turns.
While my attempt at a summary may seem convoluted, “rogerandtom” actually strikes the perfect balance of keeping the audience on their toes, but maintaining crisp clarity, so the audience is never left behind. The production feels much like a brainteaser, one that is both funny and edifying.
The production’s success lies in the well-developed script, but also in the ensemble’s strong performances. Suzy Jane Hunt is convincing and incredibly committed as Penny, the girl who believes one hundred percent that the set before us is her real apartment. Her breakdowns are situationally funny, yet hard to watch due to Hunt’s raw emotion. They point to the rather perverted nature of the theater—the audience’s voyeuristic pleasure in witnessing emotional torment. Jonathan Tindle expertly navigates the tricky terrain of switching back and forth from an actor to a character, and does it all with a knowing glint in his eye and slightly sinister smile. He is the perfect foil to Eric T. Miller’s relatable Roger. Miller provides the comic relief, nailing his knowing glances to the audience fit for an episode of “The Office.” Finally, I must mention the exquisitely simple set design by David Esler—in a perfectly meta fashion, the apartment is constructed by a simple floor plan.
“rogerandtom” is a smart, provocative production that effortlessly communicates innumerable themes all with a good-hearted laugh. It is about theater, but is also about all of our tendencies to believe what we want to believe, whether or not our chosen truth is based in reality. Personal Space Theatrics has created an effective study in the breaking of the fourth wall, forcing the audience to re-think their role in the function of theater in the most fun, approachable way possible.
“rogerandtom” continues through March 23 at HERE, 145 Sixth Avenue, Manhattan; (212) 647-0202: here.org.