REALLY (Theatre Exile): Camera obscura

Really Theatre Exile review Toby Zinman

Nancy Boykin, Matteo Scammell, and Jessica Johnson in REALLY. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

You know how some people hate going to the theater because they once went to play that had no plot and no action and no idea, and where instead of dialogue the characters held forth pretentiously about Art and Life in wandering monologues?

REALLY by Jackie Sibblies Drury, currently in production by Theatre Exile under Brenna Geffers’s direction, is that play.

Three fine actors do their level best with the resistant material: Nancy Boykin provides a remarkably nuanced portrayal of an aging, lonely, annoying, grieving Mother; she has come to her dead son’s apartment where his Girlfriend, played by the excellent Jessica Johnson, is photographing her. Why? Who knows? Calvin, played by Matteo Scammell with his signature intensity and implicit physical threat, makes several mysterious appearances.

A character says, “I feel like time has stopped.” Well, yeah, isn’t that what photography is famous for? But Really has no interest in aesthetic questions, and generally ignores its own central fact: a talented photographer is reduced from an artist to an anybody who commits suicide.

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Jessica Johnson and Matteo Scammell in REALLY. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

We get only random glimpses of the emotional mess he left behind with pronouncements like, “There’s something unforgivable here” and “You didn’t love him correctly,” and “I can’t see what you see.”  When Calvin rants at Girlfriend (note that the women are reduced to nameless roles in Calvin’s life), he tells her that “earnest is not good for art.” Tell that to the playwright, please.

The set (designed by Thom Weaver) is a blindingly white room; the women are inexplicably shoeless. There is a stool and several cameras with much assembling and disassembling of tripods and lights.  The show’s lighting (designed by Amanda Jensen) pops with nearly every click of the camera, so when it doesn’t we don’t know if the photographing has stopped or not.  The soundscape, designed and written by Chris Sannino, is intentionally bizarre with ominous, groaning music and the shrieking of a wet finger run around a glass’s rim. Discomfort is the name of the game here, but to what purpose?

Consider the title; consider your inflection as you speak the word “really.” Is there a delighted upturn of your voice, a squeaky pleasure response, or, as the non-theatergoer of paragraph one would say it, drop your voice an octave and speak the word with snark and snide, as an ironic question, as in, I mean, Theatre Exile, really?

{Theatre Exile at Latvian Society, 7th & Spring Garden streets] January 25-February 18, 2018; theatreexile.org

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About the author

Toby Zinman

Toby Zinman is Professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a Fulbright professor at Tel Aviv University and a visiting professor in China. She publishes widely and lectures internationally on American drama. Her fifth book, Replay: Classic Modern Drama Reimagined, was recently published by Methuen, and she has just finished an essay, "Visions of Tragedy in Contemporary American Drama," due out in 2017. Zinman is also the chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. She was named by American Theatre magazine as, “one of the 12 most influential critics in America.” Her travel writing has taken her all over the world, from dogsledding in the Yukon to hiking across England.