Heartbreak: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Ariel Stess, the talented writer of the school-violence farce I’m Pretty Fucked Up, plays an odd new game in the wrong-foot comedy Heartbreak. Compared to her earlier, fiercer work, Heartbreak is archness itself, its characters distracted, the atmosphere one of stunned incomprehension. Here, Stess’s humor is almost dangerously dry; even for those who find deliberate banality delicious, it can feel airless—though it turns lovely in the end.
Stess hides melancholy inside language-play. Words slip, perhaps because our hero’s mind has: “I’m always…I’m hallways…” says the baffled, soon-to-retire Steven (Richard Toth) to wife Stell (Mary Rasmussen), and he can’t understand that daughter Stara (Keilly McQuail) is home because her relationship’s over. “You’re not home,” he protests. “You’re anti-home,” he says, casually selling the forest-cum-cherry-orchard behind the house. Even the plot is a pun: In Stess’s Seussian Texas, family members are alliterative (Steven, Stara, stepmom Stell), while coworkers rhyme (Mell, Brell, Kell). Stell’s name does both, hinting at her loyalties; real-estate nerd Mell (the always hilarious Seth Clayton) barely has to ask her to give him a handsy house tour.
There are pleasures here, but you wait for them. The production’s elegant—designer Meredith Ries strips Steven’s home to the studs, and Chris Giarmo’s soundscape performs weird tricks, partially by playing at the edge of hearing. The play demands we hush ourselves, that we tamp down our hunger for entertainment. In the quiet, we can enjoy Stess’s tiny throwaway jokes as though they were knee-slappers of the highest order.—Helen Shaw
Bushwick Starr (Off Off Broadway). Written and directed by Ariel Stess. With Richard Toth, Mary Rasmussen, Keilly McQuail. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission.