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If the recipe is right, the end result is amazing

By Beck Holden

Section: Arts

March 21, 2008

In a recent interview for The Hoot’s new theatre podcast, “Open Call,” SubUrbia director Kenny Fuentes ‘08 essentially split the play’s characters into three categories: those looking to change their lives, those fighting against the forces of change, and those who have already slipped into the abyss.

At the end of the Brandeis Ensemble Theater’s (BET) production of this Eric Bogosian drama, which ran last weekend in the Shapiro Theater, the audience was likewise left to stare into the abyss with heavy questions about life and youth wasted looming and no answers ready at hand. Beautifully-written, well-acted, and stunningly-designed, the show was as praiseworthy as it was powerful.

The action of SubUrbia spans one long night on a street corner in Burnfield, a suburban everytown. As it begins, Jeff (Eric Engelstein ’10), Buff (Tony Rios ’11), and Tim (Ernest Paulin ’09) assemble outside a convenience store run by Pakistani immigrants Nazeer (Dmitri Papadimitriou ’09) and Pakeeza (Roopa Modha ’08), as is their habit. They are shortly joined by Jeff’s girlfriend Sooze (Sarah Jacobs ’09) and her friend Bee-Bee (Sophie Sinclair ’09). It is not to be an ordinary night, however; Pony (Brian Melcher ’10), who left Burnfield as a geek, is returning as a hero, a successful musician on the cusp of a gold record. This spurs his high school classmates to reexamine their own lives and dreams, setting events in motion that may help bring some to success beyond their hometown. These events, however, also bring present destruction that cannot be undone.

Bogosian’s writing displays a potent grasp of dramatic tension. He does not allow his problems to work themselves out easily; for instance, Jeff realizes he wants to leave Burnfield and go to New York with Sooze, a point of much contention in act one, but she cuts him off when he tries to tell her and they do not speak again before the play ends. Likewise, the love triangle that forms with Jeff, Sooze, and Pony and the racial tension between the racist Tim and the immigrant Nazeer are never properly resolved.

As has become a trademark of Fuentes’s directorial work, the acting was mostly quite strong. Paulin excelled as Tim, a growly, bigoted, alcoholic Air Force dropout with a sense of humor black as tar. He developed an enthralling dynamic as sort of a shoulder demon to Jeff in the second act. Rios showed a wonderful talent for puncturing dramatic tension as the overenthusiastic, overgrown child Buff. Jacobs and Melcher both gave rock-solid, naturalistic performances. Their greatest contribution to the production, however, may have been their crackling stage chemistry, which added a lot of tension to the love triangle that forms among the two of them and Jeff.

Sinclair displayed an impressive ability to seem to almost vanish even while onstage as the rehab survivor Bee-Bee, a character whose poignancy hinges on how easily everyone else forgets about her as she slinks in and out of scenes. The intense Papadimitriou’s loathing for both his customers and his situation as Nazeer added a valuable dimension to the play’s dramatic tension, while Rachel Kurnos ’08, in her relatively brief role of Pony’s publicist Erika, brought a pleasant warmth to her cheerful, sensual character. Engelstein’s Jeff, unfortunately, frequently phased in and out of sounding rehearsed and disconnected from his fellow actors as he spoke his lines, which was a significant distraction throughout the show.

The set (designed by Melcher) was one of the finest the Shapiro Theater has seen in recent memory. The realistic look of the bricks, the working dumpster, and the little touches like bullet holes in one of the convenience store doors and the yellow lines marking parking spaces on the black stage brought a gritty realistic feel to the production. The lighting (Daniel Chavez ’10) worked beautifully with the set, from the sterile fluorescent lighting inside the convenience store to the stylish blue-lit backdrop to the obviously important task of keeping the actors lit. With Bridget McAllister’s ‘10 able costuming, SubUrbia was clearly near the apex of UTC design work.

In theory, it is the simplest formula for a great evening of theatre: get a good script, find strong actors, and assemble a formidable design team. BET’s production had all three of the latter, so it should be no surprise that it deserves the former praise. SubUrbia, simply put, was a great show.

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