Review by Edmond Malin
Planet Connections Theatre Festivity continues to present plays that raise awareness about global issues. This year, you can see an expanded, two-act version of “Occasionally Nothing”, written by Natalie Menna, directed by Ivette Dumeng.
The production is in support of Food Bank For New York City.
We find ourselves in a bleak world where three survivors are hiding out after a nuclear holocaust. Virtually nothing is left, not even bullets to shot themselves with. They have a sense of humor about things, referring to fallout as “White Christmas” and planning, in spite of it all, to have a Thanksgiving meal. Oh, and they’re all British expatriates, living in the U.S.A., the place we all used to call the Land of The Free. Harry (the avuncular David Triacca) is about sixty. His adopted nephew, Clay (the punked-out Sean Hoagland) is in his late twenties. They allude to some of the details of their current situation, but only in a captivating double speak which they have presumably needed to adopt because of bad political developments. “Is something ever nothing?” they ask. “Sometimes.” If this sounds like splitting hairs, just remember who got elected last year and keep reading. Such discourse and the “endgame” which the men fear is approaching bring to mind the great Samuel Beckett. His work seems to work best in dark times. But when are we? Clay enjoys listening to 80s music, even during the apocalypse using his last battery. At one point, he suggests listening to the band New Order, which had been banned by the New World Order. What I mean to say is, pay attention and enjoy the dark humor.
Harry is married to a beautiful, former Rockette dancer named Luella (the iridescent Maiken Wiese). Luella has mostly lost her memory, but takes pills, of which she is right now down to the last. Sometimes she remembers she is married to Harry, and other times she assumes she is with Clay, who is much nearer to her age.
Luella joyously enters waving a “Facts Plus” pregnancy test. Facts are very much at issue in this story, but everyone has a different viewpoint. Before the bombs went off, Clay was married but discovered open relationships. Harry blames such thinking for the demise of unity among the nations. As Britons, they also blame Brexit, although they believe that most other countries and even most other people in the U.S.A. have been destroyed. Loud explosions are heard at various points in the play.
The men are alternately protective of Luella (“It could get worse. You could stop forgetting.”) and pitying (“She’s a good listener …that’s ‘cause she has nothing left to say.”) Although the New World Order prohibited the use of certain words (“perspective” among them), our survivors are emboldened to talk about things now. Why should Brexit have been a surprise when Oscar Wilde once remarked “We turn wine into water, we Brits.” Under the “Grumpf” administration, they declare, “we’ve moved from discourse to dissent to verbal threats to violence…to silence.” It is a night on which the lyrics to Elton John’s “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” are recited with the same serious tone used for the words of Beckett.
In addition to the constant discussion related to the title, the play leaves some things comfortably ambiguous. Was Clay preparing a Thanksgiving turkey outside the door, or was that another story to distract from the looming threat of distraction? If no one else has survived, who might be bombing them? How can we make sure a fact stays a fact?
There are some glimmers of hope. Can Luella still recite the Kiddush, the Jewish blessing over wine, because she only has short-term memory loss and has access to her childhood? What could be achieved in the world if we could remember the past?
Director Ivette Dumeng brings out a lot of musical humor and the glory of being an American, even when there is no more America. It really is like a one-hour roller coaster ride, for which we should thank the talented cast and writer. Even if you aren’t familiar with anti-nuclear tales such as “Threads” and/or post-modern theater, there is much to enjoy.