Bigger Than You, Bigger Than Me

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

If there is a post-9/11 theater in America—the way there was, for instance, a postwar theater in Europe—it just got bigger than before. A new play opened last night that offers a sharp new take on our times and jolts our collective psyche. The “our” in that sentence refers specifically to those of us who live in DC, a town targeted by terrorists not 15 years ago. Could DC also be a town whose residents are still—as Kathryn Coughlin’s Bigger That You, Bigger Than Me vividly suggests—experiencing aftershocks of that trauma unawares?

Coughlin’s setup is simple and deceptively inauspicious: three ordinary yuppie characters, two ordinary apartments that look furnished at Costco. Designer Collin Ranney has also cannily hung back walls of huge color photographs of DC buildings (including the Capitol) as might be viewed from each of the apartment’s windows, which adds an important sense of place beyond the two naturalistic playing spaces.

Beth (Sophie Schulman), an idealistic public school teacher, lives happily with Tucker (Joshua Simon), who has an important position in the Department of Homeland Security. He can’t talk about his work so they talk about hers. Beth also talks about her work when she visits her friend Adele (Mia Branco), who is also idealistic and teaches at the same school. Except for Tucker’s absorption in playing video games and Beth and Adele’s recreational pot smoking (which they do within the letter of DC’s new law, for what it’s worth), there’s not much of note going on.

At first the pace proceeds slowly, almost languidly, which may be due more to Nick Vargas’s direction than the play. Conversation between Adele and Beth has a spacey quality that is arguably warranted by the weed but that breeds impatience. Similarly scenes between Beth and Tucker amble along with no angle. Where is this going? is a question that can arise out of either suspense or ennui. In this production of Bigger Than Me, Bigger Than You, it’s the latter.

About halfway through, though, it becomes clear that something really is going on, something psychological, unsettling, or something actual, horrifying, we don’t know—something that steadily tenses and tightens such that what happens at the very end is shocking and chilling.

It is a most remarkable dramatic arc. You know those plays that start fascinating but then peter out? This one starts flaccidly then holds us fast in its grip.

Turns out Adele has a premonition that another terrorist attack is coming. She foresees from her floor-to-ceiling windows on the fifth floor that an automobile accident will happen, and sure enough it does. So she knows she’s right: “I want people to know what’s coming,” she says to Beth; “I want them to be safe.” Beth on the other hand, backed up by Tucker—who would certainly know if there were any credible threats at the moment—is certain that Adele cannot possibly be right. Beth has a fascinating speech about how such bad things happen elsewhere; they can’t happen here. So, who’s right? Is one crazy and the other not?  Cagily Coughlin keeps us wondering. More important, she constructs a script that makes us feel we must know.

It’s a script that has many other nice touches; one exchange between Beth and Tucker is a good example. Tucker has a pattern of calling particular women he has known “crazy” and Beth calls him on it. (Simon plays Tucker throughout the play in an understated, amusingly nuanced way that is well worth watching from the get-go—he definitely does the dude Coughlin has written. At one point, lacking a hand to hold a slice of pizza Beth has served him because both his hands are on his joystick, Tucker simply lets the pizza dangle from his mouth while he keeps playing.) Against the tension building between Beth and Adele over whether DC has been targeted again—such that Adele is dead certain school children must be sent home! people need to evacuate!—Beth and Tucker’s exchange about “crazy” is both smart and sublime.

Lighting Designer Chris Holland has provided some appropriately ominous optical effects, though because of the pacing problem they cue in and out in a way that can seem randomly overdramatic. Similarly Sound Designer Daniel Hogan has separated scenes with hauntingly melodic chime-and-keyboard tracks, but the effect can seem overstated next to the lackluster shape of the scenes. Hogan’s sound effects, which I’ll not give away, definitely do their job, however.

Field Trip Theatre is a brand-new 501(c)3 producing organization in town. Bigger Than You, Bigger Than Me is its first full-length mainstage run after previous entries in each of the last three Capital Fringe Festivals—the most recent of which, Patrick Flynn’s Giant Box of Porn, blew me away. On the basis of that outing and this, I’d say Field Trip has set forth on a promising path indeed.

Giant Box of Porn and Bigger Than You, Bigger Than Me are unalike in most respects, but what they have in common is something I always go to theater hoping to find: an astute playwright’s voice and a vision that extends beyond the world he or she creates on stage in a way that illuminates the world we live in.

“Once you know something,” says Adele, “you can’t unknow it.” Once we have known terrorism in town, can we ever not know it? Coughlin asks us to ask: Which is crazier, to foresee lurking and immanent  danger or to be blinkered and inured to danger altogether? In so doing Coughlin puts her finger on our very pulse and diagnoses the collective psychosis with which we all now must cope.

Running Time: One hour 35 minutes with no intermission.

Bigger That You, Bigger Than Me presented by Field Trip Theatre plays through March 15, 2015, at Anacostia Arts Center – 1231 Good Hope Rd SE, Washington, DC 20020. Tickets are available on online.

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