REVIEW BY LUCIAN MCMAHON
PART OF THE MIDTOWN INTERNATIONAL THEATRE FESTIVAL: FALL 2015
After the first few minutes of Alan Arkin’s “Virtual Reality”, one could be forgiven for thinking that the playwright had awoken one night in a fevered fit of inspiration and began to scribble down a tale of two men whose time was fruitlessly spent waiting for the arrival of someone who may or may not ever appear, all the while bantering and bickering about this and that, a dialogue of tedium broken only by the insipidity of such anodyne observations as how can we even know ourselves, and then perhaps Arkin thought that maybe he should name the two hapless souls Vladimir and Estragon – until he snapped out of his reverie and realized that, alas, that particular play had already been written.
Luckily for the audience, Arkin apparently came-to early enough in his literary efforts to salvage what remained of “Virtual Reality”. It begins with a rather protracted verbal repartee over whether or not one man, Lefty (Aman Soni), will show another, DeRecha (Josh Hartung), some form of ID to prove that he is, in fact, who he says he is. But once that’s all perfunctorily taken care of for some reason or another, Arkin shakes off the importunate ghost of Beckett and begins the play in earnest, which involves DeRecha and Lefty, strangers to one another, meeting for the stated purpose of accomplishing some undefined “job”. The two men await the delivery of equipment needed for the job’s accomplishment, during which wait they cast themselves into a downward-plunging spiral of absurdity and unreality.
The one, DeRecha, aptly cast as a two-bit, pinstripe-suited gangster of the distinctly dipsomaniacal, avuncular type, thinks it best that the duo treat the equipment to a “test run”. Lefty, cast as a less experienced henchman with an air of youthful bravado – and not a little bit of the malnourishment and desperation that comes with overzealous, impecunious youth – wonders what, exactly, a “test run” of unpacking, inventorying, and assembling as-yet-undelivered equipment, the nature of which is still an utter mystery to our two friends, entails. There is, as he tirelessly reminds DeRecha, no equipment yet.
And so begins the spiral of absurdity, with DeRecha commanding a reluctant and skeptical Lefty to open and unpack imaginary crates filled with imaginary equipment, which he, DeRecha, then catalogues in an imaginary receipt. The more non-existent equipment Lefty unpacks, however, the more terribly real it all becomes, until the two would-be accomplices find themselves in another reality wholly of their own creation.
DeRecha and Lefty were, for the most part, played convincingly enough, even if at times it felt as though it was Hartung who was best able to keep the production afloat when it threatened to founder. Whether this is due to his superior abilities or to Soni’s unfortunately garbled elocution and stiff, awkward demeanor is difficult to say. But I would go so far as to argue that the road bumps in the production had more to do with the shortcomings of the play itself than they did with the actors’ enthusiastic treatment thereof. For example, the inexplicably prolonged scene in which DeRecha pesters an increasingly indignant Lefty for his ID would have tried the skills of veteran actors for the simple reason that it is not a particularly engaging or entertaining scene, despite its pretensions. Then there’s the scene of DeRecha badgering Lefty to keep unpacking the damn crates that don’t exist. That’s fine as far as that goes – but it does make for a rather humdrum affair when DeRecha yet again demands that Lefty unpack yet another item. We got the point.
That the play itself is at fault is perhaps proven by the fact that when the play succeeded, the actors shone in kind. As the urgency of their madness grew and their delusions overpowered their respective realities, Hartung and Soni began to harmonize on the stage, the dialogue hitherto forced and stilted melting into fluidity and naturalness, until I found myself, too, suspending disbelief as I watched two men gone mad cavort about the stage with imaginary weapons and camping gear atop a fantastical Himalayan mountain.
But overall, I believe that Arkin’s play has a fatal flaw that no amount of quality production and enthusiastic acting could ameliorate: it is, when all’s said and done, a gimmick – and a long one, at that. How often can one chuckle appreciatively at two men pretending to unpack an imaginary crate? Not often, if at all. Even as reality and unreality blended together, I got the distinct impression of being led around by the nose: We all of us knew where this was going and what the point was.
In the end, I couldn’t help but feel that I was watching Arkin engage in a self-gratifying mental exercise for its own sake, the conclusion of which is entirely predictable and the way there unnecessarily long, circuitous, and well-trodden.
That being said, Soni and Hartung, under the tasteful direction of Emily Edwards, did what they could be expected to do and more: By the end of the play the two actors had succeeded in creating a more or less convincing relationship between characters that is at once controlled by forces outside of their control and defined by their own delusions – even when the dialogue tried its best to frustrate the actors in that pursuit. It is worth seeing for that reason alone.