Directed by Jay Stull
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“Yeah, and every time, you say, “no no no,” and then three months later we’re back together again or you want to be back together again and I’m like “no way” and so why don’t we just cut the crap and do it right one time.” Chris to Amber in “Utility”
In the midst of the caucuses in Iowa and the elections in New Hampshire with teeming crowds of smiling fist-pumping messiah-seekers hoping to hold on to their middle-class value system, there are far too many Americans who will probably never reach the status of middle class – that fading glory-day post- war fabrication of optimism. These are the disenfranchised, the poor, the desperate Americans caught in cycles of despair, disappointment, and dereliction. Among these are Chris (James Kautz) and Amber (Vanessa Vache) the mismatched but star-crossed mates whose marriage is on and off the rocks as often as is Chris’s promises to reform: “I’m a different person now. Hey, look at me. I’m a different person. I kicked the pills. For real this time. Last Christmas. Ain’t had a single slip up.”
This promise to Amber on her mother Laura’s (Melissa Hurst) porch begins the process of repairing and renovating their water-damaged house and attempting to repair and renovate their relationship which Amber has gnawing doubts about. “And there’s a whole mess of reasons why we shouldn’t get back together,” she reminds Chris during his sales pitch. Emily Schwend’s new play “Utility,” currently running at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, picks up the restoration three months later when Amber and Chris have moved back in their house. That matrix of messy things, besides Chris’ addiction, includes Chris’ bartending shifts at JJ’s where his old flame Michelle has worked, Chris’ penchant for forgetting important commitments, Amber’s deep depression, and her inability to trust the power of forgiveness.
Under Jay Stull’s precise and assiduous direction, “Utility” focuses on a couple of days in the life of this couple as they navigate the bumpy road to reconciliation and prepare for Amber’s daughter Janie’s eighth birthday. As Amber prepares for the party, the vicissitudes of her relationships with Chris, her mother (also a fractured and fragile creature), and Chris’ brother Jim (Alex Grubbs) ricochet off the walls of her kitchen with an audacious melancholy. Amber is completely overwhelmed with trying to support her family and striving to understand her husband’s inability to be present for her and the children. The word ‘like’ appears numerous times in the script: nothing is exact for Amber. Things only approach normalcy for Amber and this disquiet perpetually keeps her off balance and on the defense. The tipping point for Amber comes when the power is cut off in the house because Chris fails to pay the monthly bill.
The ensemble cast deliver authentic and honest performances. Alex Grubbs solidly portrays Chris’ brother Jim whose low monotone vocal cadence affirms both his moral strength and his seething unrequited love for Amber. Mr. Grubb’s scene with Amber near the play’s end is spellbinding. Melissa Hurst’s portrayal of Laura, Amber’s mother, is a somewhat disturbing reminder of the traps that one generation inadvertently sets for another. Laura wants to help but she simply does not know how. James Kautz delivers a scintillating performance as Chris giving the character a deep brooding countenance and a wistful hopefulness that can never be assuaged. And Vanessa Vache delivers an equally stunning performance as Amber giving the character a melancholy and a weariness that is disturbingly palpable.
Kate Noll’s set design is appropriately claustrophobic and dour and Nicholas Houfek’s lighting design seems to be able to gauge the mood of the characters and illuminate proportionately. Sometimes the pace seems slow; however, this assessment surely is the result of the discomfit experienced at the raw truth delivered by Ms. Schwend’s disarmingly accurate script. The Amoralists have provided a shocking glimpse at the underbelly of the epicenter of the free world.
Amber ultimately settles for a life of utility, nothing attractive but a completely functional existence. As she broods in the shadows at the end of the play – for what seems like an eternity – one wonders what she is thinking. Rehearsing the good times she might have had with Chris? Remembering what she was indeed thinking when she first met his brother Jim? Or just waiting for a sign to resign to the functionality of the dissolution of the American Dream. Amber will probably be able to depend on her fractured family system. Someone after all pays the balance of the electricity bill and the lights go back on as Amber broods and flounders in the crevices of the past. Whether this will suffice remains as elusive as the birthday party balloon bits scattered across the backyard and the branches of the trees.