On Sundays Gothamist runs opinion pieces relevant to life in New York and reviews of recent books and performances. The judgments expressed below are entirely those of the author.
Sitting in the audience of cagelove it can be hard to keep yourself from yelling out to the stage, talking back to the actors in a way more usually associated with watching TV shows. Christopher Denham’s play has some flaws in both writing and execution, but it is emphatically engaging, and that characteristic goes quite a long way toward smoothing over its problems. In the same way that people often mock at least some aspects of the soap operas or long-running prime-time dramas, and hate some of their characters, cagelove has parts that will likely make you roll your eyes or grit your teeth – but you can’t help but get involved in it, wrapped up in the lives you see unraveling on stage, which is more than one can say about a lot of the fare that theatergoers are expected to subject themselves to passively.
Denham is a published author of horror stories and has written and directed horror films, and this experience and evident affinity for that genre show here, though the play starts harmlessly enough. Katie (Gillian Jacobs) is a wild-child photographer, or at least she was; now she is engaged to Sam (Daniel Eric Gold), a straight-laced, mostly mild-mannered, successful computer engineer who adores her. Well, we’re supposed to believe that he adores her and that she loves him back, if not quite as completely; one weak aspect of the play is how hard it is to understand or go along with their purported love. The time when the pair fell in love is well into the past, and now they’re going through major difficulties since Katie has been raped by a former lover. She’s unwilling to talk to Sam about what happened, and that combined with her increasingly erratic behavior as the confines of married life encroach upon her, make Sam suspicious and jealous. The result is that there’s pretty much no point in the play when the two seem mutually attracted to each other, and it’s a stretch to imagine their characters getting together in the first place, much less getting engaged. The third person in the play, Katie’s sister Ellen (Emily Cass McDonnell), whose primary function appears to be to reveal Katie’s past (usually at awkward moments, to Katie’s fury), offers some insight into her sister’s thinking, but Katie and Sam’s relationship nonetheless remained incomprehensible to me, despite Jacobs’ and Gold’s otherwise convincing acting. Of course, real-world relationships are often hard to understand too, it’s true, but this one just seems extra unlikely, and that’s somewhat distracting.
For much of the play, my sympathies (and I would think those of others in the audience) were firmly with Sam, who is trying to get Katie’s rapist convicted and who just wants a nice, stable family life, while Katie rebuffs his advances and showers him with sharp criticisms – he’s a sell-out, she says, he has no big crazy dreams, he only cares about money. These might be valid accusations, but she doesn’t win any points for her meanness, and most of the time you want to shake her and ask her what her problem is, why she refuses to see what she has in having Sam (or what she thought she was getting when they started going out). However, it doesn’t take long for Sam’s own dark side to show itself, which is when Denham’s background in horror writing comes into play with chilling effect as he depicts Sam’s desire for control over Katie and the extremes to which he’s willing to take his insistence on knowing everything about her, a soul-twisting obsession that can’t help but make Katie a lot more pitiable. The result for the play is an uncomfortable ambiguity about how to judge the two, whom to side with. This is part of the whole heightened audience involvement I mentioned, and though moral uncertainty isn’t really enjoyable per se (to watch or experience firsthand), it is real and important not to gloss over, and Denham never lets the audience off the hook, not even with a final conclusion. You have to draw your own, and though cagelove doesn’t give quite enough backstory to make that exercise totally satisfactory, it still feels worth it.
cagelove is directed by Adam Rapp, who wrote and directs Red Light Winter, which Denham is currently starring in. Some reviewers have seemed to be confused into thinking that this is one of Rapp’s plays, but although he also writes disturbing stuff, Denham’s playwriting sensibility is plainly his own, and cagelove is an intriguing introduction to it if you don't yet know his work. The play isn’t always fluid – Rapp’s strong direction and the actors’ fine performances can’t overcome some of the frustrating gaps in understanding, which can’t all be intentional – but it is provocative and challenging in a way that many shows refuse to be, and that makes it easy to recommend for anyone who wants to have something to think about after leaving the theater, rather than just getting swallowed back up into the rush of everyday after an easy resolution onstage.
Rattlestick // 224 Waverly Place // Through June 18, Mon., Wed.-Sat. 8pm, Sun. 3pm // Tickets via Smarttix https://www.smarttix.com/show.aspx?showCode=CAG // Photo by Sandra Coudert