The Off-Broadway Theatre Review: Atlantic Theater’s I’m Revolting
The room sits modern, sterile, and cold, reflecting out to us a waiting room space that feels as inviting as that vending machine in the back. The walls are mirrored, adding tension and concern as we watch each and every person set out through the spaces between the poles, walking from the hidden doorways to that row of chairs that face boldly out to the audience. It feels like someone is going to hurt themselves, smacking themselves up against a glass wall or something like the days we have walked directly into a glass sliding door or screen door somewhere when we weren’t really paying attention. Or at least that was a concern of mine as I couldn’t quite make out where the glass stopped and where the opening began. But those gaps are just that. Tense openings into that complicated space where waiting takes place, and contemplating, and worrying, and eavesdropping on other people’s stories and problems. Whether we want to or not, like a mute audience really.
That feeling on that stage is uncomfortable and authentic, and as directed with a sure-footedness by Knud Adams (ATC’s English), the anxiety is and must be precisely what the Atlantic Theater Company‘s intense production of I’m Revolting set out to create. A feeling of sterile openness yet cold distant concern for the safety of those who pass through that one door. And it succeeds, in ways I wasn’t prepared for. The title suggests something quite outright about beauty and insecurity, yet inside this stark and solid production of this oddly detached yet magnificent new play by Gracie Gardner (Pussy Sludge; Athena; Malvolios), the layers of meaning pile up. The air holds that tense feeling of possible pain and death firmly in its grip, as well as the physical destruction of our very selves that we display securely or insecurely to the world. The play spills forward, offering up examinations of self as it begins to unfold, and some other meanings of that complex title start to sink in. The care and concern are there, in the crevices and under the bandages, but there is something else seated in that row of waiting chairs. Maybe in the offputting and smooth way the doctor, played to cool kind perfection by Patrice Johnson Chevannes (NYTW’s runboyrun & In Old Age), speaks to these patients. She’s almost too level-headed and kind to be taken authentically, but this is a complex difficult situation. Cancer is something to be taken very seriously, as we all know, but her tone doesn’t give way. Where is this play planning on taking us? We have no idea. So we sit, and wait, like those on stage.
“We don’t really need to make small talk,” one of the waiting patients almost begs of the person leaning in with questions, but the reality is; it is all small talk, and very large talk, all at the same time. The cast of characters, magnificently embodied, hangs in the bright waiting room under the darkness of cancer, and this is never a pretty subject to unpack, especially when it sits heavy on your actual face. This isn’t Memorial Sloan-Kettering, we are told. “Not the famous one,” as each of the four patients frantically checks the Yelp reviews for the clinic that they all find themselves in, waiting for treatment or a routine check-up. Three stars. Regardless of where, but the air still hangs thick with hesitation and fear. And we understand intuitively.
Their tension is without bounds, as each of the characters files in and takes their seats, spaced out in an attempt to isolate their fear and discomfort from themselves and each other. It proceeds with a strange, strong sense of purpose, on a stage willingly made cool by scenic designer Marsha Ginsberg (ATC’s English), with simple but strong costuming by Enver Chakartash (Broadway’s Is This A Room), intentionally detailed flat lighting by Kate McGee (Rattlestick’s My Lingerie Play) and a solid sound design by Bray Poor (Broadway’s Take Me Out), that never gives us any space to disconnect or look away. Each of the souls in that room sits tight, playing with differing ideas of revolting and disengaging in a surprising flourish of postures and stances. Cancer is a disease that has our own cells “revolting” in a way against its host, while others, particularly the first patient to step into the space, the young Reggie, played to perfection by Alicia Pilgrim (Public’s Cullud Wattah) hang around patiently. Reggie is passive at first, giving herself over to the doctors with unknowing ease; accepting and obedient. Her sister, Anna swings in, twice, determined to be of use while simultaneously being pulled away constantly by work. Magnificently portrayed by Gabby Beans (Broadway’s The Skin of Our Teeth), she brings a brilliantly brutal comic edge to the room, but also a much-required boldness that may be just the thing Reggie needs at this moment. Reggie’s hold on her physical appearance is slipping and might be stripped away at any moment, that is if she follows the doctors’ advice. What would you do?
Shortly after Reggie’s arrival, sliding into a seat at the far end, and systematically burying his face underneath his jacket is another one waiting for treatment. It’s hard to get a gauge of who this man is, as he seems as separate and distant as one could possibly be. If that chair could have been moved further away from the examining room, he would have. But Toby, played heroically by Patrick Vaill (St. Ann’s/Broadway’s Oklahoma!) does his best to disconnect, only starting to engage with the others when they start to find the space to talk and he can’t hold back. His brooding energy is intensely forgiving, especially when we get a glimpse of the woman, his mother, played terrifically by Laura Esterman (TNG’s Good for Otto) swinging her, and her singing pots into the seat beside him. She is exactly the last person I would want by my side in a cancer clinic waiting room, suggesting quite revoltingly, that he might be the one responsible for his cancer. Yet this is all he has, and we feel for him, especially when the engagement starts to fly off into a holistic debate.
The couple that arrives soon after, sitting down in between these two patients, turns out to be the one that takes this darkly funny, dark play to a whole other level. The tense brittleness is clear from the moment the reluctant Jordan, deftly portrayed by Glenn Fitzgerald (NYTW’s Othello), and his wife, Liane, played engagingly by Emily Cass McDonnell (PH’s The Thin Place), arrive, but it isn’t until the later half of this ninety-minute one-act play when the revolting unhappiness is on full display. It’s a hard task to take in, what happens between the two, but we see and feel the friction immediately, as the last to arrive in the room sits himself down. He is the captivating veteran patient of the clinic, Clyde, played strongly, even with the script in his hands, by Peter Maloney (ATC’s On The Shore of the Wide World), standing in for Peter Gerety. “He’s not going to like your vibe,” Chevannes’s veteran doctor states to the young resident Jonathan, played beautifully by the very good Bartley Booz (Park Ave Armory’s Oresteia), but those fireworks are not as noticeable or as relevant to what happens between these patients and their partners when the doctors are away. Clyde’s place at the proverbial waiting table is essential medicine, stating the obvious as the others whirl around the dynamic.
It’s clear that Gardner has set out to make us sit alongside these people as uncomfortably as they are in this moment of uncertainty where fear and hope get tied up with their attachments and support systems in knots that are so tight they can hurt or dislodge. It feels in a way that nothing much happens when compared to other more standardized plays around death and disease, but the current of these characters tells a different story with every shift in those uncomfortable seats. The cast is uniformly amazing, unearthing and winding up their emotional responses in ways that shine and astonish. The fear and mistrust of the medical establishment unfold radically, in both the insane, i.e. Paula’s holistic healing session with her singing bowls, and in the very real way that Beans’ Anna sister act helps the young Reggie stand up for herself. It’s not clear in any sense of the word what is the right thing for Reggie to do. We, as a society, are so used to just accepting the advice of a doctor, or believing outright that the doctor standing before us as we are given some traumatic news, knows what is best for us. But Gardner wants us to examine it all, particularly what happens in this kind of setting, much like her character Clyde does when he expresses skepticism of an outcome that doesn’t really make sense. That tension states it all.
Chevannes’ doctor Denise and Booz’s young resident Jonathan steer the waiting room ship with subtle ease, even when it is in rough seas, though their stance isn’t given much space to grow. That is until that last poignant scene at the end. It feels like a throwaway by the time we get to this place, but there is some clarity here, and a reality check that doctors and their counterparts are not gods. That they can misstep like anyone else, even in, or especially because of the space they inhabit day to day. Gardner’s I’m Revolting cleverly sails around the ideas of dark comedy most assuredly, without ever pretending to be delivering anything beyond the uncomfortably dark space where cancer lives and destroys on the surface, and underneath. It’s a magnificent piece of writing, and it is delivered forth expertly, and without sentimentality. Finally, the day ends in that cold waiting room. Everyone has left, but Atlantic Theater’s I’m Revolting is not letting us off so easily. Tomorrow, you see, is a new day, and it probably will be just as difficult and harrowing. Just ask Jonathan.