Friday, April 27, 2012

ROADTRIP! - 'Sixty Miles To Silver Lake' at Collaboraction

(photo by Saverio Truglio)

A tidal wave of trepidation and fidgety eagerness passed through me as I sat in a dimly lit venue in the Flat Iron Arts Building early last Sunday evening. Playwright Dan LeFranc’s Sixty Miles To Silverlake was receiving its Midwest premiere by the small, tech-focused Collaboraction, and after the bonanza of critical enthusiasm for his sweeping The Big Meal, which premiered last year at American Theater Company, expectations were clearly not on LeFranc’s side. I took in The Big Meal in March at New York's Playwrights Horizons, and was made an instant fan. Like Tennessee Williams and A Streetcar Named Desire, The Big Meal came relatively early in LeFranc’s career, and I can only imagine that his continuing body of work will, for many years, be stacked up against that one play.

Sixty Miles to Silverlake does not attempt the Steinbeckian width or heft of The Big Meal, and it does not have to. What does make a welcome return though is LeFranc’s soft-spoken colloquialism. LeFranc’s language, when heard, is the picture of normalcy, but an astonishing, ornate artistry is made apparent when you scan his words on paper. What, orally spoken, is some of the most accurate human speech written for the theatre today, is, on paper, a work of graphic art. The playwright's gift for language and his expansive, yet homestyle visions forge a divide between him and the majority of his contemporaries. His mesmerizing Sixty Miles To Silverlake cements LeFranc as the top interpreter of the modern American family writing for the stage today.

This is not the first 'car play', and it certainly will not be the last. But it is surely the best use of that conceit I have seen thus far. Sixty Miles To Silverlake, as the title implies, takes place entirely in a car. A father, Ky (Sean Bolger), drives his son, Denny (Ethan Dubin), to his new home in the wake of a divorce from the boy's mother, and in the process, all of the awkward conversation that you can possibly have is had. Many, many plays, one act plays in particular, exploit the jailcell-like restrictions of a drive, and build their drama solely off of that one aspect, but Sixty Miles' suspense comes not from narrative plot development, but from a heartwarming and uncomfortably toe-curling relationship that is really close to home for any audience.

LeFranc pairs the often explored father-son relationship with a theatricality reminiscent of The Big Meal, yet far more subtly and in a method quite unfamiliar. The drive, at first, is run-of-the-mill and smooth. The car-ride behavior is acted naturally and easily by Dubin and Bolger, making for a watchable play, but nothing altogether that extraordinary. But small inconsistencies in speech start to reveal that we are not watching a single drive, but many drives in different times, situations, and perhaps even dimensions. A pastiche of scenes takes place with the same two characters on a non-linear timeline. Because of the physical consistency of the car and the drive, the scene changes aren't noticeable until you're thrown into the thick of the wilderness, and the realization is a great pleasure.

Taking disjointed scenes, liquefying them into one seventy minute drive, and simultaneously tending to their own individual uniquenesses takes actors of immense skill and sensitivity, and a creative and supportive director. Sarah Moeller has lovingly staged an actor focussed play, while incorporating Lizzie Bracken's stylized set, Mac Vaughey's mood ring lights, and Christina DeRisi's otherworldly soundscape.

Actors Sean Bolger as Ky and Ethan Dubin as Denny have a knowing grasp on what it is to be a father and a son. Understanding when you listen and when you don't; when you are close and when you apart; when you let your guard down and when you build it up. Bolger and Dubin capture the intricate minutiae of a Dad and Son drive in a way that is absorbing, light hearted, and tragic. Dubin's performance spans the ages of eight to eighteen, a period when every year a person is made anew. That this exciting young actor shares those nuances bravely without condescension or overacting is no mean feat.

At the play's most tumultuous curves, a visibly shaken Denny will loudly ask of his father, "Is it safe yet?" It seems that these interruptions happen after a pointless argument grows and grows - the sort of argument that happens so often in cars - and correspondingly the car shakes and shakes, the perfectly seasoned lights waver and the brilliantly integrated projections (Liviu Pasare) convey a series of blurred images. The sequences are heart-pumping renderings of the horrible rift a conversation can cause among family, and like the hours immediately following The Big Meal, I was left, once again, revisiting my own relationships and my own rifts. "Is it safe yet?"-Johnny Oleksinski

Collaboraction's 'Sixty Miles To Silverlake' by Dan LeFranc runs at the Flat Iron Arts Building til May 27th.