“What would we do without drama?,” asks a highly educated city worker (Louis Cancelmi) in the first segment of Adam Rapp’s The Hallway Trilogy, an energizing, delightfully anarchic kick in the pants to a rather sleepy theater season—and you wonder if Rapp included such a line so that he was able to answer it himself through this triptych of plays, each seemingly from a slightly different hemisphere in his whirling psyche. Examining a Lower East Side apartment floor through the years 1953, 2003, and eventually 2053, and how social mores and deviant behavior modify their way through the decades, it’s likely to become Rapp’s crowning achievement, not simply in how beautifully his already-patented vision weaves with his blessedly talented new collaborators, but in how you can see his push-pull feelings of love and discontentment with societal tides of change immersing themselves in the enticingly confining spaces of the Rattlestick, which has been stunningly reconfigured into a large rectangular tenement floor.
Rose, the curtain-raiser, is the surprisingly gentle—well, for Rapp, at least—story of a young aspiring actress (Katherine Waterston) hoping to personally thank Eugene O’Neill for a thoughtful audition letter he wrote her months back. Trouble is, there’s confusion over whether the portly super (Guy Boyd) is the real O’Neill that reportedly died the night before, or just another schmo in a building of assorted types, including a pretty, vixenish redhead (Julianne Nicholson) and her more straight-laced schoolteacher sister (Sarah Lemp), a Russian coronet player (William Apps) with a perversely overweight, dying mother we only hear, and a creepy near-mute named Marbles (Nick Lawson), who has a charming physicality and a penchant for thievery; he’s like Spider-Man reimagined as a belching street clown. And don’t forget the pasta-obsessed neighborhood mobster (Danny Mastrogiorgio), who has his eye on all of them, whose nature is so benign you momentarily forget he could snap your neck.
Allowing himself absolutely no profanity, nudity, and only a modicum of pop-culture riffing, Rapp (who also directs this segment) is supremely focused here without sacrificing his signature pauses and outbursts, also seen in Paraffin, perhaps the least of the three acts simply in that it’s in our wheelhouse timeframe, and has the most in common with Rapp’s plays of the last 15 years or so. The deterioration of the setting is more present, as we enter the humidity-soaked day of August 2003 when the famous New York City blackout occurred, and meet the new tenants, who largely know each other this time around. Margo and Denny (Nicholson and Apps) are a pregnant wife and her junkie hubby, the latter of whom has shat his pants while lying in the hallway—and the post-effects of the act are naturally seen in graphic detail (ah, the good ’ol Rapp returns). Meanwhile his acerbic, paralyzed, war vet brother (Jeremy Strong) is under the care of a lonely, aging gay diabetic (Boyd), referred to in one of the funniest exchanges as “the Village People’s version of Homer Simpson.” An upstairs Israeli couple (Robert Beitzel and Maria Dizzia) becomes involved when the vet offers the wife in the duo some cash to keep him company, and a sweet, put-upon super (Mastrogiorgio, in perhaps my favorite characterization of the entire event) tries to keep the peace while lusting after his pregnant neighbor’s best friend (Sue Jean Kim).
Astutely directed by Daniel Aukin, with a terrific ensemble, Paraffin occasionally sags because we’ve seen some of these exchanges in other Rapp works (Strong’s character in particular feels like other antiheroes the playwright has concocted), and the conclusion is ultimately more of a shrug than a shudder. But the one-act remains affecting and worthwhile (aided by the amazing tech team of this production), and it might be the first time I’ve ever seen an actor’s testicles give a supporting performance.
But nothing could have prepared me for Rapp’s chilling, unrelentingly committed glimpse into dystopia with Nursing, not only the best of the triptych, but so powerful it could easily play independently of the trilogy and still achieve maximum impact. We are now in the same setting in 2053, where the apartment floor has now become a museum in which spectators can watch a volunteer soldier (Logan Marshall-Green, frighteningly intense) become injected with the world’s deadliest plagues and diseases, as germs have become increasingly limited and lifespans have exceeded normality, yet the world appears as disaster-prone and unstable as ever. The elongated seating area of the Rattlestick brilliantly doubles as an observatory in this act, as a chipper, sly tour guide (Kim) allows us to view this boy-in-the-bubble world, complete with nurses (Cancelmi and Dizzia), a guard (Stephen Tyrone Williams), and a Brit journalist (Strong) who all try to get something out of the test subject, whether it’s affection, a good story, or full-out revolutionary action.
Director Trip Cullman, already having a banner year with terrific works like A Small Fire and Bachelorette, is at the peak of his powers here with one of the most genuinely scary interpretations of futuristic despair I’ve ever been privy to in a theatrical setting. If viewers are looking for their downtown Rapp kicks, this is the one to come to above all others: Blood, vomit, semen, and urine get face time (sometimes literally), as well as Marshall-Green’s ravaged body—seen to nearly microscopic effect and sure to please some theatergoers. Though to highlight the jolting aspects of the piece is to too-easily dismiss the more tender ones, the most potent being the soldier’s attentive, crushed-out male nurse patiently reading him Green Eggs and Ham (“I hope we get to spend 100 diseases together,” the nurse reveals).
If the cast of all three pieces seem to have gotten short shrift here, it is not intentional; this is a marvelous ensemble without a wasted presence, but Hallway is a particularly good showcase for certain members of the Amoralists (Rapp’s newest sweet tooth, as they performed his first play mere months ago), and Lawson, Apps, and the always-beguiling Lemp further their talents alongside some of Rapp’s longtime standbys (Boyd, Beitzel, and Waterston). But every cast member would be utterly lost without such a top-drawer design team to aid the directors: Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt, lighting dynamo Tyler Micoleau, costumer Jessica Pabst, and ace sound man Eric Shimelonis (who also composed Nursing’s stunningly craptastic, kitschy synth score) create a vestibule atmosphere right out of the most vivid dreams and nightmares.
The Hallway Trilogy is now playing at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place near 7th Ave) in New York City through Mar 20. Schedule (plays in repertory): Tue-Sat 8pm, Sat at 4pm, Sun marathon at 1pm, 4pm & 8pm. Running time: 1 hour and 35 minutes per play, no intermission.