Dan Aibel’s theatrical treatment of scandal-plagued skater Tonya Harding is stuck on thin ice.
The 1994 saga of Olympic figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan seems to have made quite the impression on a rising generation of American dramatists. This season in Chicago has seen not one but two plays about the affair in which Harding’s semi-estranged husband, Jeff Gillooly, hired goons to attack Harding’s on-ice rival Kerrigan.
Elizabeth Searle and Michael Teoli’s Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera was mounted here last fall by Underscore Theatre Company; now Dan Aibel’s T. is having its world premiere at American Theater Company. And a third play on the topic, Nate Eppler’s The Ice Treatment, premiered in Nashville last year and was honored with the M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award by the American Theatre Critics Association last month.
I can’t speak to Eppler’s work until it too gets produced here. But as for Tonya and Nancy and T., well, the scandal may have captured these playwrights’ imaginations 23 years ago, but it doesn’t seem to have inspired much deep thought. The musical treated the whole story as fodder for intermittently amusing satire of the culture and media around skating, with a faux-bombastic score that sounded more like ideas for songs than fully fleshed out numbers.
Aibel’s play, in contrast, looks only at Harding’s side of the proceedings, with the author’s imagination filling in some gaps about how much “T.” (Leah Raidt), or her coach (here referred to as “Joanne,” and played by Kelli Simpkins), knew about what Jeff (Tyler Ravelson) and his associate Shawn (Nate Whelden) were planning. Kerrigan doesn’t appear in this play; in fact, she’s only referred to by name in the archival news audio that sound designer Miles Polaski uses to cover scene transitions.
Aibel gives all five of his characters—Harding’s father, Al, is played by Guy Massey—an oddly staccato rhythm, speaking in bursting fragments of sentences. On the page, perhaps, you would read this as the characters interrupting and talking over one another, but director Margot Bordelon has apparently pumped extra air into the scenes. Her talented cast applies a flat affect to every interaction, and lines hang in the atmosphere with space between them, as if everyone’s a beat behind on their cues. The effect is that the characters all appear to be talking past one another.
But what’s most baffling is that Aibel chose to recount this semi-fictionalized version of Harding’s story without having anything to say about it. T. conveys the proceedings with a sprinkling of speculation as to unknown facts, but it offers little in the way of empathy, insight, or even a strong comic point of view.
The terrific Massey and Whelden are only given scraps of characters to work with, and Ravelson winds up playing up Jeff’s oddball qualities for lack of more interesting choices. Simpkins is more strongly grounded, as she so often is, but here that leaves her feeling outside of the play’s indistinct world. Raidt, asked to play a version of Harding that barely seems to have an inner life, finds what she can, but she’s hamstrung; she might as well be skating with a broken lace.
American Theater Company. By Dan Aibel. Directed by Margot Bordelon. With Tyler Ravelson, Leah Raidt, Kelli Simpkins, Nate Whelden, Guy Massey. Running time: 1hr 35mins; no intermission.