Pie in the Sky

If there’s one piece of advice I’d probably give to anyone going to a play with the intent to review, try not to sit two seats away from the playwright in question. Granted, I didn’t really figure this out until the intermission, but it did mean that instead of experiencing the second act purely on a personal level, I kept inadvertently looking over to my right for various cues — wait, is Jesse Kellerman laughing here? Okay, but wait again, shouldn’t he have seen his own play? Am I supposed to react now? And on and on. It’s kind of like when the writer part of my brain kicks in while I’m reading a book and once there, it can’t go away.

That said, it didn’t really stop my enjoyment of the opening night of Kellerman’s play, THINGS BEYOND OUR CONTROL, billed as “a play about Dallas, Love, Fate and peach Pie.” I’d sum it up as mostly quite good, though very much the work of a younger man and a new production (the play inaugurated the Grid Theater Company, which seems to be very heavily NYU-based and influenced, if bios and credits are to be believed.)

The play takes a single incident and breaks it into fragments, then

spends the rest of the time bringing the fragments and scattered

characters together in surprising and intriguing ways. A cabbie,

carrying a passenger to the airport, hits a boy on a bike, then speeds

away. But we don’t learn this important fact until midway through the

first act, at which point the passenger — Roberta — has missed her

flight to London, fought with the flight attendant Miranda, and made

some important but extremely impulsive decisions about her life. The

lives of the cabbie, the boy, the boy’s father, the uptight but

well-meaning doctor on duty at the hospital, and a Texas belle waitress

are at stake too. Layer after layer is revealed, then taken away, until

finally — thanks to the observatory machinations of a downtrodden

magician — something approximating a resolution is achieved.

As in his debut novel SUNSTROKE, the dialogue in THINGS BEYOND OUR

CONTROL is the strongest element. From the pithy one-liners dished out

by the Amazing Tarquin (ably played by Matthew Johnson) to the waitress

Opal’s floundering attempts at storytelling and connection to, best of

all, the expansive silences that thicken the tension between characters.

That said, there are some pretty important weaknesses that must be

addressed. Some might have been due to opening night jitters, but the

scene changes were awkward at best, clunky at worst, and too often

threw off the rhythm between scenes (some of which were only about a

minute long.) The play is at the Linhart Theater, which is a pretty

open space, and perhaps there could be room to place each of the main

sets at various corners, then alter the lighting to shine on each one

in succession and keep the flow going.

Seamlessness may have also helped in the play’s structure, where

some important elements were more telegraphed than they should have

been, and various connections that should have been surprising really

weren’t. Also, I was never really sure why the play had to be set in

Dallas. Just because? It seemed like it could have worked in any

Southwest or midwestern city, and the Dallas-ness sometimes proved

distracting and superfluous.

But in the end, THINGS BEYOND OUR CONTROL entertained me and showed off the talents of various actors and actresses, and there’s no question that Kellerman is a talented playwright. But I can’t help feeling that someday, this will be regarded as the beginning of something, with more mature works to come. Which, of course, is a good thing to think about a writer still in his 20s.

As it turned out, Kellerman had never seen the play performed in its entirety until last night, and considering that it won the Princess Grace prize way back in 2003, that’s quite a long gap. So it wasn’t that unnerving to watch a playwright laugh and react at his own creation. Instead, it actually proved to be kind of cool. And as I was walking towards the subway to go home, I passed by the most appropriate sign in the world considering what I’d just seen — a sign for the new small chain shop PIE.

THINGS BEYOND OUR CONTROL will be playing at the Linhart until January 28th, then moves to Boston for a fuller production in mid-March.