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On the Exhale
Photograph: Joan Marcus

Theater review: Roundabout's solo drama On the Exhale addresses gun violence

By Helen Shaw
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★★★☆☆

The theater must, of course, talk about gun violence. It's a powerful ethical call, to which the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Martín Zimmerman's On the Exhale responds. And though the play is actually an hour-long monologue tucked away in a tiny basement space, the Roundabout isn't burying the show. They've got Broadway talents down there: Leigh Silverman directs; Marin Ireland stars.

Dressed in a cardigan and jeans and pacing a minuscule platform, Ireland plays a traumatized woman seeking out the wrong kinds of solace. Even before the much-foreshadowed tragedy, Ireland tells us she's a professor who believes a student will someday gun her down; the woman's also deliberately friendless, despite having a child who might need the occasional playdate. So it's not totally unexpected that this paranoid loner responds to an eventual shooting with instant derangement. Zimmerman creates a character whose feminism warps into a desire to seduce, whose pacifism tuns into a creepy attraction to a gun.

As a moral construct, On the Exhale has weight, but as a play, it falters. Zimmerman is skilled: he shows a cinematic attention to detail and has a clever way of using storytelling techniques to shift focus and keep us disoriented. But ultimately, the characterization rings false. Zimmerman has written in the second person (“This is the first time you feel judged by your therapist”), which has a self-consciously literary flavor to it, as does much of his line-by-line diction (death is usually the fancier “demise”). And while the piece's first twist works brilliantly, subsequent ones feel overly guided by the playwright's hand.

Still, Ireland works well with this kind of sculpted language. She's one of our best realistic actors, but her speech and expressions are actually quite stylized—she has a trick of grinning as she speaks that can turn her face into a frightening mask, though just for a millisecond. Her tremulous fragility gives the often sensationalist piece a vulnerability its sometimes overwrought turns would otherwise destroy. And Ireland's thrumming voice makes the short-story-cum-soliloquy slip through our defenses despite its unlikelihoods; her lulling alto hypnotizes the listener, so it might not be till later that you realize how the text was so wide of its mark.

Roundabout Underground (Off Broadway). By Martín Zimmerman. Directed by Leigh Silverman. With Marin Ireland. Running time: 1hr. No intermission. Through April 2. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

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