Say this for David Rosenberg’s What Else is True?, co-directors Adam Coy & Jake Beckhard have staged this new play about a team of college improv students in their junior year in such an energetic fashion that the talented cast seems to be living their roles rather than acting them. Initially the play moves with a speed that belies the subject matter. However, the play has too many short scenes and blackouts (27!) as in a television script, and uses so much theater jargon that it will be opaque for many theatergoers.
The play covers the academic year of 2010-11 for a New York college improv group made up of six members. The play begins with the entrance of a new member Miles, a sophomore, to replace one who decamped to Africa. The setting is mainly the classroom they use for meetings as they prepare for their periodic public performances, regional, and then national tournaments in Chicago. We watch and listen as they rehearse, interact, argue and reveal themselves and their dreams.
Each of the characters is on another path which may or may not make them closer to the others. The upbeat Jamie (Adam Langdon) and the pragmatic Samira (aka Sami) (Olivia AbiAssi) are the apparent leaders and organizers of the group, assumed by others to be a couple but in fact they are not. Rebecca (Serena Berman), a former child star, is involved with her parents’ messy divorce and her own financial problems. Zeke (Jawuan Hill) is a film buff and has an envied apartment and roof top used for the group’s parties. Jeanna (Ema Zivkovic) with a very outsized personality is a very private person, not confiding in anyone. Miles (Sam Gonzalez), the new member of the group, is believed by the others to be tremendously talented and very quickly gets cast in a full-length show being done on campus.
The title, a quote from the now defunct Upright Citizens Brigade Theater (“If this unusual thing is true, then what else is true?”) is not stated in the program, only in the script. It appears to refer to the truism that college groups tend to fall apart and the friends you make tend to go off and have a different life from the one in which you were involved. The play uses a great many abbreviations that will be known to people who have studied improv but not the rest of the public. Terms like DCM (Del Close Marathon), UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) and NCIT (National College Improv Tournament) are tossed around, often without reference to their meaning, so that much of this is obscure.
Another problem with the play is that although the subject is “Improv” we never actually witness any, just theater games to prepare for group improvs. Games like Mind Meld, Mating Call, 99 Problems, Zip Zap Zop and the Pattern Game are practiced but as the rules are not made clear, many in the audience may be confused by what is happening. Throughout the play we are told that Miles is the most brilliant of them all, based on his auditions and performances, but except for a brief moment in the next to last scene in which he performs two characters in an improv alone, we are never shown any evidence of this.
The classroom setting by Lindsay Fuori is realistic but as it remains basically unchanged throughout most of the play’s 25 scenes (not counting the two scenes performed before a black curtain as if on stage), it becomes a bit tiresome. Don’t blame the too many blackouts on lighting designer Paige Seber as the playwright is unable to keep most of his scenes going for any length of time. While Olivia Vaughn Hern’s sober costumes are pitch perfect for college-age students, except for a Halloween costume party sequence, she fails to have any fun with the designs.
Despite the play’s shortcomings, the actors are engaging at all times and the direction is first rate given the material at hand. Playwright David Rosenberg seems to know a great deal about college improv groups but he needs to add events to his play to break up the too many rehearsal scenes. He also needs to offers some real improvs so that we don’t feel cheated out of the experience of witnessing what the group is practicing. The ending seems unprepared for and comes as a bit of an unexpected surprise.
What Else is True? (through August 26, 2023)
Egg & Spoon Theatre Collective
Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 W. 53rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visits http://www.eggandspoontheatre.org/weit
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission