10 Out of 12: Theater review by David Cote
Playwright Anne Washburn is America’s bard of the peripherally glimpsed, the half-eavesdropped, the shakily grasped. Her plays immerse characters in baffling subcultures, and the audience must follow along. In The Internationalist, she wrote whole scenes in an invented foreign dialect. Her 2013 stunner, Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, took a beloved episode of The Simpsons, let it decay over eight future decades of dystopia, then rebuilt its ruins into something bizarre and holy. Now Washburn cracks the door on a world that shouldn’t be so alien—a play rehearsal—and reveals abundant wonder, whimsy, even horror.
Granted, this is not a typical run-through; it’s tech week, when stage management and designers build crucial transitions between scenes, as light and sound cues are adjusted, set and painstakingly tweaked. That means long hours during which bored performers stand around waiting for the next fragment to act. By writing a semirealistic play about the tedious process of creating illusion, Washburn finds the beauty and strangeness of playmaking, the nobility of an often futile pursuit.
The semi-hokey play within the play is never named, and the playwright is conveniently out with the flu, but it seems to be a period chiller with debts to Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe, a mix of ghoulish fantasy and sexual hysteria. The ensemble is a mix of wry troupers (Gibson Frazier and Nina Hellman), nervous newbies (Sue Jean Kim and David Ross) and the magnificent Thomas Jay Ryan as Paul, playing what is termed in the industry a difficult actor. That means his innocent question about motivation turns into a ridiculously grandiose rant about artistic endeavor.
Juicy interactions between director and actors are only half the show. There’s a lot of sets being moved and lights brightening and dimming. Audience members wear wireless earpieces, so we get a constant stream of gossip, jokes and cue-calling from the highly professional but put-upon crew.
I should note that boredom is a component of 10 Out of 12 (the title refers to how many hours Equity allows actors to stay for tech), which has been directed with incredible attention to detail and tone by Les Waters. The density of information and layered narrative is thrilling, yet at more than two-and-a-half hours, it’s still an endurance test. But if, like this critic, you served in the trenches of Off-Off Broadway, particularly in the ’90s, this backstage tour will be all at once a familiar haunt and a devilish maze.—David Cote
Soho Rep (Off Broadway). By Anne Washburn. Directed by Les Waters. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 40mins. One intermission. Through July 11