Chris Phillips‘s new play, Pieces, running briefly at The Cherry Lane Theatre as part of NY Fringe 2012, is a fine example of dramatic writing and boldly engaging theatrical entertainment. Set amidst the gay male milieu of haves and have nots, it concerns a grisly murder in Hollywood. Specifically it involves the fallout as experienced by five associated parties; a straight woman – the District Attorney, and four gay men – the defendant, his Defense Counsel, a friend, and an interested journalist. The plot is thick right from the start – an apparent clear case of guilt, an outraged populace calling for capital punishment, a D.A. with a broad humanitarian streak, a predatory, trouble-rousing reporter, and an ambivalent counsel figure. But Phillips delves deeper, teasing out the complicated emotional histories and psychological motivations of the principals, exposing the greater social ills that underpin personal actions or failures to act. Social, sexual, and psychological, it’s a dense investigation, unsparing of its characters, and not a little damning in its broader implications. It would not be an understatement to say that Phillips, writing as an insider, reams the contemporary gay male social world. Oh yeah; he tears it a new one!
Explicitly this is done in the character of Rory Dennis, the Defense Attorney, a prickly, emotionally defended, verbally excoriating personality with a treasure chest of issues about himself and, as he sees it, his gay male brethren. Dennis is a giant of a dramatic character – a real accomplishment for Phillips – and is powerfully embodied here by actor Jonathan Gibson who gives him all the steam required, and then some. There isn’t a stone Dennis hasn’t already turned and found under it something ugly, cruel, and repugnant. Lacerating and far-sighted as his views are, they hold him a helpless prisoner, remote from the deeper contact and comfort that human intimacy can offer. He would rather use everyone as a chess piece in his own personal game of exposé. Presently at a critical juncture in his life, the incidents surrounding this new case push, all at once, his splenetic and rather tender buttons. His sad case, tumbleweed rent toy, Shane Holloway; the pushy, crusading journalist, Nick Goff; and most exactingly, Shane’s suave, successful erstwhile benefactor and confident, Jonathan Nielson, all have it coming and they hear it, but trenchantly, from Dennis. As do we in the audience. It’s quite electrifying and -plot development, character evolution, etc. aside – well worth the price of admission. Gibson grandstands passionately, sweatily, and there’s never a dull moment.
The opening sequences slyly encapsulate Phillips’s theme of casual social assessments. The play begins with a scene of the blood covered suspect surrendering to police. It swiftly moves to the initial client/defense lawyer consultation scenario, and the audience is lulled into a sense of familiarity, dismissal even of another standard courtroom drama cliché. Dennis, the lawyer, is himself a chilly, officious suit, someone perhaps who will be on the wrong side of the story rather than its centerpiece. Shane is an apathetic presence, devoid of individuality and therefore, interest. But then Phillips begins to twist the stuff, opening up characters and situations in fresh ways. The audience’s preconceptions are implicated, part of a dulled pattern of socialized response which the writer wants to overthrow. Despite all the sturm und drang, the wider themes invoked, there’s yet a murder mystery and a courtroom drama in this play. Demanding critics might opine that , as treatments, these stories don’t break fresh ground. They’re merely a trope. The conclusion, when it arrives, is a little abrupt, perfunctory; and the landing, given all the in flight turbulence, a little smooth. But perhaps that’s a measure of what has come before; if you dig up large parts of the rose garden, it can be difficult to see it just as a rose garden afterward.
Brian Zimmer directs with assurance, soliciting on point performances and keeping a wordy play animated, unencumbered, and paced. Technically everything flows, though there are some questions about character lighting and whether shadow is intentional during a few exchanges. It’s a treat when a chewy dramatic text meets with receptive and able performers. Phillips is sharp at characters and everyone here is honed to a high pitch. Dennis’s emotional tornado does not preclude the other actors from making their mark. Chris Salvatore (Shane), Joe Briggs (Goff), Paolo Andino (Nielson), and Nina Millin (D.A. Mary Hamilton) resolutely stand their ground and present fully rounded, humane performances. This suits in a fully rounded, humane play. Pieces works as entertainment and as drama with teeth. Go, for pity’s sake, while you can. You should consider yourself lucky to be so bitten.
Writer: Chris Phillips
Director: Brian Zimmer
A brutal murder. A damaged suspect. A public defender unsure of his place in the gay community. Straight from a sold-out run in Los Angeles, PIECES takes no prisoners and pulls no punches. You have been warned.
2h 0m National Los Angeles, California
Staycation: Ripped from the Headlines Celeb-reality TV in Hollywood
VENUE #12: Cherry Lane Theatre
Sat 11 @ 12:30 Tue 14 @ 5:45 Wed 15 @ 6:30 Thu 16 @ 4:30 Sun 19 @ 8