Could there be five more self-involved, selfish, self-deceptive characters than those who populate Lily Akerman’s The Commons at the 59E59 Theaters? No, these five roommates aren’t evil, just depressingly of the here and now, young people who have lost the ability to communicate honestly with each other. There’s a problem with a 90-minute play about people who do not connect: it is an unrewarding slog for an audience to sit through.
Set in the kitchen of a shared flat, The Commons follows its characters for a year beginning inauspiciously with an insipid argument between Robyn (Ben Newman), the elder member and self-appointed mentor of his roomies. He is up in arms over a tomato sauce encrusted stovetop which someone didn’t clean up, setting the petty tone for the overlong play. Robyn is so socially inept that he even begrudges a former roommate’s leaving to live with a romantic partner not understanding how anyone could leave his domain.
Twenty-something Dee (Julia Greer) is constantly working on and hopelessly dithering over her dissertation about Monteverdi. She also is highly possessive of a package of chocolate covered almonds which becomes a bone of contention later when twenty-something Cliff (Ben Katz) blithely offers them to his girlfriend/interloper, twenty-something Anna (Olivia Abiassi) about whom he has lied to the others.
Janira (Olivia Khoshatefeh) loves to bake but finds that the results of her efforts have been diddled with without her permission leaving her with just crumbs to eat. She also takes it upon herself to purge the communal refrigerator of all past-due food stuffs despite the protestations of her comrades. She even decides to rid the apartment of Dee’s beloved lamp, an eyesore which lives in the kitchen as Dee had one in her room and didn’t need a second one. Even beloved leader Robyn’s sculptures are the object of Janira’s purge, so little does she care for others’ feelings.
Dee sums up her feelings and inadvertently the point of Akerman’s play: “This whole cleaning thing, it’s fucked you know. You say you’re like purging to keep the stuff we have in common but actually, we have nothing in common… so you’re basically just making everyone live like you and how you live is fucked.”
Dee and Janira also butt heads over Janira’s belief that Dee is a trust fund baby, which isn’t exactly true, but creates yet more friction.
Dee, the dark horse of the household also utters her biggest fear: “What if I never finish my dissertation and I live here till I’m a million years old and just become Robyn?” A terrible thought.
Cliff, the quiet one, twists ancient Greek rituals of hospitality to convince the others to let Anna crash at their apartment. Anna actually intends to stay far longer.
Then there’s the incident of the poor invasive mouse that causes low-key havoc for an over-extended scene.
Entropy finally causes The Commons to wind down to an unsatisfying squeak with Cliff going on about a knife and Dee making a life-altering change.
The Commons might just appeal to those who know such people. It also might fascinate those who have the ability to find smidgeons of wry humor in nitpicking conversations.
These five fine actors manage to make the characters believable if not tolerable. They are always fascinating to watch, particularly in the tiny Theater C of 59E59.
Director Emma Miller has encouraged a nearly catatonic pacing for a play that might have benefited from an injection of caffeine. She could not, though, stitch together the many short segments into a play.
To give Akerman credit, she did capture each character with perspicacity, but the lines are stilted and disconnected, perhaps purposely.
Emmie Finckel’s set conjures nothing less than a kindergarten school room with its perpendicular walls of cubbyholes and a plain central table that is also used as a stove.
Victoria Bain’s excellent lighting provides ambiance where there is none and Dara Affholter’s costumes quietly express each character.
Caroline Eng’s excellent sound design keeps the kitchen from becoming a black hole.
The Commons (through February 23, 2020)
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-892-7999 or visit http://www.59E59.org
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission