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Friday, November 02, 2018

Alls Wells in Williston

“LET ME SHOW YOU HOW COUNTRY FEELS,” sings Randy Houser before the lights dim for the start of “Williston,” a new play by Adam Seidel. And then we’re in that kind of country, in a mobile home, a one-room misery in an oil town in the northwest corner of North Dakota. A real town that suddenly turned expensive thanks to its oil resources.

Robert LuPone, Drew Ledbetter, and Kate Grimes
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
It’s the headquarters for three representatives of Smith Oil, a small, family-run business that stands a chance of leasing the last remaining chunk of oil-rich land in the area. Enough of a deal is at stake to give Larry, the oldest of the group, visions of a magnificent commission – and he’s enough of an old hand at this process that success is all but certain. If “Indian Jim” is as ready to sign as he seems.

The only hitch, as Larry sees it, is the possibility that the new guy, Tom, might screw things up. Tom has never been on this kind of mission before and, at 34, he still seems (to Larry, at least) green around the edges. Which puts Barb, their third, uncomfortably between them. It’s not a position Barb enjoys – she was barely civil to Tom at their first meeting – but her crankiness is nothing compared to Larry’s foul-mouthed, know-it-all, high-energy rancor.

“Williston” plays out over a tense 85 minutes, skillfully constructed to take us from the afternoon arrival of our trio of reps through the early-morning epiphany that finishes off more than just an oil deal. It’s the Miranda Theatre Company’s first POP UP Production, commencing a series that aim to present short runs of worthy works at a variety of New York City venues. This one is at the IATI Theatre at 64 E. 4th Street, a 40-seat space that put the seats at two sides of the stage, so it’s a not-quite thrust. But it was furnished effectively, with two beds and a cot as testimony to the awkward sleeping arrangement, and a downstage couch with its back to the audience to give positioning there an extra measure of power.

The set design and lighting, by Graham Kindred, gave us a stark room, coolly lit, but with subtle gradations in lighting effect as the time wore on. An interstitial moment in a downtown restaurant was signified by a pair of neon beer signs and pub-ambiance lighting on the faces of the actors, who conveyed in mime the sense of being among a crowd.

Director Valentina Fratti, who is Miranda’s founding artistic director, gave the actors room and then some to show us not only the complexity of their relationships but also key moments in their characters. Each of them has at least one monologue that proves revealing in a way that even the character who’s speaking probably doesn’t realize, and how they move and where they’re placed as these monologues set in is a tribute to fine stagecraft.

Kate Grimes | Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Tom, played with considerable charm by Drew Ledbetter, has a moment in which he relates a childhood fight, and his recitation, given as he sits on his bed with his back to the wall, has about it a childlike simplicity even as he tells this terrible tale. He seems almost too charming, but it’s to Ledbetter’s credit that he soon begins to suggest that there’s more. It’s still a surprise when that more is revealed, and more surprising still when it turns out there’s still more to follow – bringing full circle the import of that earlier confession.

Kate Grimes, who plays Barb, shows us early on that this character is a fighter, but one who knows when to pull in her claws. Once Larry arrives, she falls into what’s clearly a routine for her as a check on his impulsiveness, and she finally merits an unexpected compliment from him, even if it comes too late. Barb is an ambitious woman who’s been marginalized for sticking up for herself, and Grimes metes out the pain of that situation convincingly, a little at a time, so that the fate she chooses for herself at the end makes sense, albeit bitterly.

Propelling the action like a recklessly fired bullet is Larry, played by Robert LuPone. He wears the casual jacket and tie of an English professor, but swears like a stevedore and works up one passionate emotion after another until he’s red-faced and breathless. LuPone stalks the stage like a caged beast, fully aware that this is his nature yet unable to keep himself in check when restraint might prove helpful.

Inevitably, he and Tom clash. Larry has laid down the true and only procedure for closing this important deal; Tom favors another way, and is successful in following it. It’s the classic situation of student surpassing master, a device that reeked of cliché as used in John Logan’s play “Red,” but very effectively woven into this story, particularly with the unexpected capper that severs all of the relationships here.

It spoils nothing to hint that such will happen. You’ll be drawn into the piece through its humor and Seidel’s well-delineated dialogue, building characters quickly. There’s also the poetry of the obscenity that laces LuPone’s lines, and the sense of moment that grows as we realize that a North Dakota oilfield is, in fact, as important as it’s revealed to be.

There’s always plenty enough to see in the midtown theaters, but here, in this tiny space where nothing can be hidden or faked, is a celebration of the art of telling a small story with a big emotional message through excellent acting of a terrific script. And a ticket is only twenty-five bucks. You're not going to find a better deal.

“Williston” plays through November 10, 2018

By Adam Seidel
Directed by Valentina Fratti
IATI Theatre
64 E. 4th Street, New York, NY
1 November 2018

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