The Commons attempts to explore the ways in which everyday moments can form a wider story. The comedic drama is written by Lily Akerman and directed by Emma Miller backed by an almost exclusively female creative team. For a piece that sprung from the mind of a young playwright known for telling stories filled with colorful and distinctive voices and further filtered through a sharply feminine lens, it is surprisingly lacking in warmth or depth.
The script is composed of quick scenes depicting a series of conversations held in the kitchen shared by four New York City housemates. Fastidious Robyn (Ben Newman) is a failed artists who has lived in the house for 20 years. Jittery Dee (Julia Greer) is struggling to focus her thoughts about her all-important dissertation. Homey Janira (Olivia Khoshatefeh) lovingly bakes bread while Marie Kondo-ing the heck out of the space. And newcomer Cliff (Ben Katz) is stretching his meager web designer paycheck while filling the air with empty promises. The topics they cover are everyday issues from who should wipe down the stove top to how long a guest should be able to stay. Atypically, these discussions do not build on one another. Each time an incident appears to be lifting the action to the next level, it deflates as quickly as Cliff’s vow to clean his beard hair from the sink. In total, the characters live together for 9 months — the period it takes to create a new human life — yet they have almost no impact on each other, an outcome that is as tedious as it is unrealistic.
Ms. Miller’s staging in the black box Theater C at 59E59 is also ill-conceived. In order to accommodate Emmie Finckel’s clean kitchen set, the performance area has the audience seated in an L-shape. But the actors are mostly placed so that those on the shorter side are continually confronted by backs instead of faces. The sharp cuts between episodes often make the passage of time difficult to gauge. At least the clever sound designed by Caroline Eng fills the pauses with the “music” of kettles, microwaves, timers, and other kitchen noises.
The cast members — most of whom have worked exclusively in festival and workshop productions — do what they can to bring variety to their roles. The most successful is Olivia Abiassi, whose energetic arrival halfway through the play woke up the audience, in some cases literally. Her portrayal of Cliff’s ex Anna, the most full blooded of the characters, is thoroughly engaging For the short time she is in the shared apartment, the spunky straight shooter fills the void by providing everything the others have been lacking in their lives, be it a fresh salad or genuine honesty. Unfortunately, none of her vitality survives her character’s exit.
A still-emerging work, The Commons might be better appreciated in a less established venue. For a modern day kitchen sink drama, this production suffers from a lack of seasoning. Though the situations portrayed may be increasingly… common, that does not automatically imbue them with meaning. To build a real bridge between the viewers and the subjects requires more than an exploration of surface traits and eccentricities.
Presented by The Hearth, The Commons is running at 59E59 (59th street between Madison and Park) through Sunday, February 23. Tickets are $25 ($20 for members) and are available by calling the 59E59 Box Office at 646- 892-7999 or by visiting http://www.59e59.org. Seating is general admission. Note that the second row on the shorter side of the L is not raked.
Tagged: 59E59 Theaters, Ben Katz, Ben Newman, Caroline Eng, Cathy Hammer, Drama, Emma Miller, Emmie Finckel, Julia Greer, Lily Akerman, Off-Broadway, Olivia Abiassi, Olivia Shoshatefeh, The Commons, The Hearth