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Monday, June 03, 2019

The Century Club

AS WE CONTEMPLATE the implications of the life-changing choices we make, we’re dogged by a persistent worry: What will the neighbors think? For Joan and Stevie, recently settled in a Florida condo-style residence, it’s more than a worry. Their new neighbors start by mistakenly occupying Joan and Stevie’s residence, and it goes downhill from there as scatterbrained Helen and imperious Ray undermine what little remains of the other couple’s sense of well-being.

Kevin McGuire, Colleen Corcoran,
and Keith J. Conallen.
Photo by Richard Lovrich
Richard Dresser’s “100 Years,” which is getting its world premiere in a production by Troy Foundry Theatre, puts us not too far into the future as two couples contemplate the implications of a life-changing decision they’ve made. They have signed up (at great expense) to undergo a mysterious process that requires them to live in this cookie-cutter community and consume nine large portions of some kind of shake each day, shakes that seem to have all the appeal of a dose of Miralax.

“I don’t like all the rules here,” Joan declares early on, and it’s easy to see how stifled she feels. Colleen Corcoran has a beauty of a role with this character. Her relationship with husband Stevie (Keith J. Conallen) is, on the whole, a happy one, but we see a credible range of contention and discontent as they grapple with their odd new life and odder new neighbors. Conallen also conveys the complexity of such a relationship, as well as deftly giving us a character who isn’t as tough as he’d like us to think.

And just as we’re getting used to them, the neighbors appear. Helen is Raymond’s second wife. His first, she explains, died in a sinkhole, an accident that “didn’t have to happen, but, then again, what does?” In order to marry Ray, Helen gave up her job consulting for trauma victims – “Talk about a growth industry!”

Noa Graham conveys a delightful innocence through a face that smiles with Stan Laurel simplicity. She has ceded control of her destiny but still tries to order her world, putting a best face on everything. She is a perfect foil to Raymond, whom we don’t meet until scene three, when the build-up to his oddness of character is paid off – and then some. Kevin McGuire is all swagger as the too-wealthy Raymond, a man accustomed to having his way. His intake procedure at this facility will happen instanter; Stevie and Joan have been waiting for weeks.

And what makes the procedure they’re awaiting work? “We don’t have to understand the process,” Raymond declares. “We pay them to understand.” The ever-shifting power dynamic among these people is hilarious on its surface, nightmarish beneath, harkening to the dark absurdity of Thomas Berger’s novels, particularly Neighbors.

It’s the plausible absurdity of these relationships that draws us far enough into the piece that we’re ready to accept the encroaching nightmare of the natural world. Something is wrong with the bugs and birds, the chatter of which we hear throughout the play thanks to the ominous sound design of Joan Kelsey. Helen sees the bugs in her kitchen, crawling up the wall in formation, moving with “ruthless precision.”

We soon learn from clinic attendant Brett that the laboratory has suffered a break-in committed by “animal-rights jihadists.” The result is a return to nature of some now-unnatural beasts, nicely paralleling a possibility awaiting the human subjects.

The approach of Brett’s van is signaled by the approach of music, an ice-cream-truck version of “The Entertainer.” And there is, indeed, a childishness about the dream that has united the four protagonists. Brett, played by the excellent Jared Manders, is young and sassy and all about the business. You’re not supposed to eat or drink anything not provided by the facility, although he may well be looking to score a Whopper with cheese when he gets the chance.

“I never got scared till I moved into a gated community,” Joan admits as the second act reveals more of the bumps in the road that she didn’t want to confront. Raymond, who at one point says, “I pity the world without me,” learns some devastating news, prompting a scene with Joan that’s enriched by the virtuoso acting of Corcoran and McGuire/

Dresser’s dialogue can be as crazy as the situation into which he’s thrust these people, and it’s a credit to him and the actors – and director Elizabeth Carlson-Guerin – that we’re nevertheless drawn into this antic reality, filled with sympathy for each of the four hopeful victims.

The entire journey is designed to keep you off-kilter, from the drab downtown Troy office building in which “100 Years” is being performed to the lab-coated attendants who escort you to the folding chairs in the makeshift theater. The between-scenes moments in which lighting gels are changed and furniture shifted seem a bit heavy-handed for the piece, unbalancing what should be a gradual slide into nightmare, but they certainly fit the overall atmosphere of bureaucratic oppression.

Troy Foundry Theatre is a young ensemble – they’ve been active for just over twenty months – so it’s an impressive coup for them to receive a world premiere from the likes of Dresser. The ensemble has presented fresh takes on Beckett and Pinter as well as developing original works, and has found a number of arresting venues in which these shows have been given both traditional and immersive presentations. “100 Years” is a powerful piece that aligns nicely with the group’s mission. As Helen puts it towards the end of the play, “Under my rage and despair and dashed dreams, I’m really very happy.” Who can hope for better than that?

100 Years
By Richard Dresser
Directed by Elizabeth Carlson-Guerin
Performances at 500 Federal Street, Troy, NY, through June 9, 2019.
Ticket information here.

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