“The Awake” at 59E59 Theaters (Closed Sunday September 8, 2013)

August 29, 2013 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Written by Ken Urban
Directed by Adam Fitzgerald
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“Wake, awake, for night is flying,”/The watchmen on the heights are crying;/”Awake, Jerusalem, arise!”
(By Philipp Nicolai, 1556-1608, translated by Catherine Winkworth, 1829-1878)

Despite the watchmen’s recurrent and plaintive admonition to join the ranks of the awake, humankind has doggedly chosen to consort with the perhaps less discomfiting echelons of the asleep, the unconscious, or perhaps even the lifeless. Ken Urban’s masterful “The Awake” chronicles the interconnected lives of three characters balanced precariously between the world of the awake and the world of the unconscious. Mr. Urban’s script is a mind-splitting journey into the individual lives of these characters and what ultimately conjoins them in a new and lonely pilgrimage to hope.

Malcolm (Andy Phelan) has put his life on hold to stay at home with his mother. “My mom needs me,” he tells Gabrielle. “My dad left us when I was a kid and she took it really hard.” Gabrielle (Lori Prince) is on the run from the reality of her husband and his anti-terrorist black ops activities with the Argysill Corporation (“Global solutions for global investors”). Nate (Maulik Pancholy) is a young man of color hunted by an organization that assumes, based on racial profiling, he is a terrorist.

Reality, dreams, nightmares, fantasies, even hallucinations exist side-by-side in this inventive play as the characters disclose their histories, their fears, and the terror that connects them. As the action proceeds, the audience begins to recognize the subtle threads that connect Malcolm, Gabrielle, and Nate and these “aha” moments often throw the audience back in their chairs with the same velocity and intensity as Malcolm’s mother’s bed cascades down the stairs in the story he tells and re-tells his mother hoping to rescue her from the vacant spaces created by her stroke. Nate, the audience discovers, is a temp worker who is filling in for Malcolm’s mother who works the phone banks at Argysill the covert organization where Gabrielle’s husband works. The paths to this discovery emerge from the underbrush of loneliness, despair, confusion, and life-threatening fear.

Andy Phelan understands Malcolm’s dilemma with the precision of a digital etching tool. This remarkable actor wears Malcolm’s spirit on his skin as Malcolm, after his mother’s death, comes to terms with all he has sacrificed and admits he “doesn’t know what’s next.” “What I do know,“ he shares at the end of the play, “is that my life is not on hiatus.” It is difficult to understand how Maulik Pancholy can take a curtain call following his exhausting performance as the hunted and haunted Nate who believes that somewhere at some time he “did something wrong.” Lori Prince delivers a Gabrielle who is mother, Eastern-European actor, and the angel Gabriel incarnate. Her mantra “Cisza leczy” reverberates with Malcolm’s disquiet: it is the same phrase his mother used to bring healing to his loneliness: “Silence is healing.”

These three engaging actors are joined by an ensemble cast that portrays all of the characters in Malcolm, Gabrielle, and Nate’s real lives and their unconscious lives. Jeff Biehl, Jocelyn Kuritsky, and Dee Nelson flood the stage with fifteen unique characters and give each of them a defined and delicious personality that counterpoint the stories of the three main characters. They move across the stage with amazing precision and speed, clearly present when need be and practically invisible when setting up a scene.

David Arsenault’s surreal set and Travis McHale’s hypnagogic lighting create a space fit for dreams. Adam Fitzgerald’s direction is a palette of wizardry. With controlled brush strokes he laminates his characters to the fabric and soul of Ken Urban’s well-honed script.

Gabrielle perhaps says it best when she comforts Malcolm with, “Sometimes we have to run from our lives. Lose ourselves in dreams. Because. Well, because, life, life, it is hard.” Gabrielle confronts Robert and her honesty sets her free from her life on the run. Nate returns to Canada and to his parents’ home hoping for a prodigal response. Malcolm heads off on a road trip. “I’ll find a new place, maybe,” he muses. “And maybe this new place, that will become home.” The awake always search for hope and for home. The watchmen on the heights do their best for the night is flying.