2005_07_arts_jayandpris.jpg We’re all pretty numbers-crazed in one way or another these days – tracking gigabytes left on our iPods, memorizing cellphone numbers, reading casualty statistics, in addition to traditional situations. So it’s not really a stretch that in Top Ten, the new play by Peter Gil-Sheridan, characters are first identified by numbers, and only after they’re onstage for awhile do we get to know them by their real names and personalities. This conceit is actually kind of unnecessary and even silly at times, but the play itself is extremely enjoyable. It’s not deep or provocative, really, but it’s funny and heartfelt and convincing, and those strengths more than cancelled out the small flaws of cliché and over-sweetness.

Top Ten doesn’t really have a single, unified plot per se, except that it all takes place in Rahway, NJ and most of the characters are connected at least tenuously in some way. Wanda (#1) is a middle-aged black nurse who falls in love with Freddie (#4), a nice young white guy who gets shipped off to Iraq. Meanwhile Doyle (#8), who’s a friend of Freddie’s sister Felicia (#4), is struggling in his relationship with Jay (#6) and with his own sense of himself. There’s also Camma Wess (#10), a politician whose insincerity and extreme annoyingness make for a pretty good caricature of recent electoral races, although the epiphany she has at an auto mechanic’s shop is rather too much. The other digits on the roster fill out the story as their problems weave together in a pretty seamless way. The weaving is primarily done by Nine, the manic master of ceremonies played by Chris Bester (who also appears as a televangelist and as Camma’s mechanic). Bester’s list of theatre credits is brief, but he does a superlative job here as he bounds around the stage in a suit and shuffles the numbers/cast from scene to scene.

2005_07_arts_topten.GIFGothamist was impressed by the way contemporary social politics and hot-button issues were incorporated so smoothly – the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on gays, the war of blue state vs. red, plus some racism for good measure. Their inclusion didn’t seem forced, most of the time anyway; it was just like watching a really coherent, self-contained microcosm of the present day. Though Bester shines the most, all of the actors give fine performances, and the staging, though minimal, is quite effective in bringing the characters’ world to life. More than anything, the people depicted in the play seem real, and you quickly find yourself invested in their life dramas, small and large, cheering for them and mourning for them and laughing at and with them. Top Ten isn’t a perfect ten, but Gil-Sheridan’s writing is filled with clever, winning moments that make this show a great pleasure to watch.

Details: Top Ten is at the Sanford Meisner Theatre, 164 Eleventh Ave., through July 31. Performances are Thurs.-Sat. 8pm, Sundays (7/24 and 7/31) at 3pm. Tickets via Smarttix.
Photo by Keith Bedford from the New York Times.