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picture - SubstitutionTheater Review

by Oliver Conant

published May 9, 2008



now playing off-Broadway at the SoHo Playhouse

through May 17


The best reason to see Substitution, Anton Dudley’s moving, beautifully written  new play at the SoHo Playhouse, is Jan Maxwell’s performance as a single mother whose fourteen-year old son has been killed in a freak accident.  It’s a tour-de-force.  While never showy or forced or over the top, dressed in slept-in slacks and a forlorn brown cardigan, Maxwell delivers what amount to whole arias of grief in which are mingled shock, denial, dismay, sadness, numbness, bewilderment, anger, guilt, and longing.


From the start Maxwell enlisted and retained my admiration for her character’s dogged determination to try to understand, without the aid of false sentiment, the inconceivable thing that has happened.  From her quietly sardonic opening announcement, “there are no words,” a cliché that, characteristically, she tears into with a caustic wit that only barely masks the rawness and newness of her suffering, we’re in the masterful hands of an actress at the top of her form.  And this is but the first of a series of direct addresses that take her audience with her (and that I predict will be mined for years to come as audition pieces.)


The unimaginable event that Maxwell’s character forces herself – and us – to confront is the explosion, a “technical malfunction” aboard a motorboat, possibly one of those vessels that take tourists whale watching, that killed her son Calvin and a number of other students from the same high school. (“Technical malfunction,” like “there are no words,” is another anodyne phrase that comes in for appalled scrutiny.) The explosion left her son’s body almost unidentifiable. The mother, known to us only as “Calvin’s Mom,” reports having seen photographs of broken pieces, and of “a face that is not a face.”


picture - SubstitutionThe accident claims other lives, students from the same high school, including seniors in a loopy sounding Ethics class whose teacher requires of them that they dress as super-heroes.  Two of these, Jule (Shana Dowdeswell) and Dax (Brandon Espinoza) are shown from time to time in a little square compartment with a sliding front recessed into the back wall of the set. They’re lounging on a bus seat on their way to the fatal boat trip, playing an odd card game in which they predict the futures of their classmates, including Calvin’s, whom they refer to as “least memorable.”


 It took me a while to figure out who these colorfully outfitted characters were  (Jule looks like a refugee from Angels in America and Dax is a bare chested “Merboy” complete with shiny green scales) or what they were doing, and I’m still not sure if their presence is at best a clever(ish) device, at worst a distraction.  A final monologue from Dax, spoken in an eerie aquatic half light, does tend to justify the conceit of having two victims of the disaster on hand, as does Jule’s touching affirmation of love in the face of an unknowable impending future.   Dowdeswell and Espinoza do the best they can with their awkwardly segregated characters, bringing a welcome adolescent vibe to the proceedings.


Bringing what at first seems more of that same vibe is the other main character, Paul (Kieran Campion). He’s a bouncy substitute teacher, a twenty-something visiting the woman he calls Calvin’s Mom in the capacity of a “grief councilor.” The help he offers consists in gathering up bouquets of dried flowers and clearing off a kind of altar to the dead boy.  The monologue that accompanies this business is cheerfully inconsequent and self referential; shockingly so, coming after Maxwell’s grave and impassioned relation of her son’s death and its aftermath. Paul deserves both her “shut up,” and, when that doesn’t work, her “shut the fuck up.”


Paul, however, is in his own way as determined a character as Calvin’s Mom, and in subsequent scenes the two draw closer, linked by their common sorrow. It turns out that Paul grew close to Calvin, and that Calvin confided much to Paul that the young teacher feels it to be desperately important for his mother to learn. The mother, bemused, as much taken aback as amused by this strange hitherto unknown influence on her son’s life, reluctantly lets down her defenses and listens. And from their interchanges an intimacy grows up, and in one unguarded moment, the offer of a drink is accepted, and the next thing we see is Paul, stripped to his briefs, doing squats with bottles of wine.  “What are we doing?” one asks the other.


picture - SubstitutionNothing that turns into a love affair, although Paul does declare a love that it seems Calvin had hoped would materialize. But it turns out that Paul, who by the end of the play has fully redeemed himself in our eyes, is himself genuinely bereaved by the death of a student he had come to cherish. Anton Dudley leaves us with no pat lessons in this play that holds to scorn comfortable nostrums in the face of the comfortless reality of death. But Maxwell and Campion do show us that sorrows that can seem excruciatingly singular can also be shared. By the end of the evening, the two succeed in making the absent Calvin as much of a character as any on stage, evoking the dead boy’s quirks, his sullen uncommunicativeness, his artistic spirit, “the little moustache” he’s starting to grow on his upper lip, his flute playing that makes his mother think that the birth of Venus is taking place on her kitchen floor, his soft cold hands, his love for his mother and the transparent father-hunger of his devotion to his teacher.


Substitution is sensitively directed by Katherine Kovner, who is also the Co-Artistic Director of a new company, Playwrights Realm, whose first offering this is. It runs for ninety minutes without intermission and has a clever, glowing aqua marine set. Subtle lighting and materials make the stage alternately look oceanic and like a sleek, soulless contemporary high school classroom, all glass brick and grey carpeting.    


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