Windowmen

by Michael Cox

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday November 8, 2013

In the early 1980s, David Mamet's seminal "Glengarry Glen Ross" burned into the American theatrical conscience with a poetry of minimal language, profanity and testosterone. The play was partly based on Mamet's own experience working in a Chicago real estate office in the late 1960s.

Steven Barkhimer began writing his own, somewhat, autobiographical "Windowmen" (a play about guys working in a fish market beneath the Brooklyn Bridge) when he was working on his M.F.A. in playwriting at Boston University. Now Boston audiences have the opportunity to see a full-fledged production of Barkhimer's thrilling new work that has all the verve and virility of Mamet but with more personal characters and more heart.

Kenny (Alex Pollock) is fresh out of college and trying to set up the life of an adult. He has a cheap apartment, a girlfriend and a bachelor's degree in Philosophy and Math. Like so many of us with liberal arts degrees, he finds himself without enough money for further education and without enough education to make money. But he lands himself a job at the Fulton Fish Market in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

As the play begins, we hear a few strains of "New York States of Mind" and the sound of the early morning subway rushing past. The set by Anthony R. Phelps is a marvelously evocative space, full of the dirt and grime and excitement of New York in the early 1980s. It reminds me of the television show Barney Miller (on Hulu and DVD), full of heavy metal desks and filing cabinets and decorated with enormous calculators that print numbers onto long roles of paper because they have no screen. Although the set is vast and multidimensional, Phelps has also created a claustrophobic space that holds in the heat so the action can simmer and boil.

Although he's quite meek at first, Kenny soon learns that this job isn't like working at Starbucks - there are no regularly scheduled breaks or employee incentive programs or HR department - the best you're going to get is a boss who will allow you to create some (less-than straightforward) incentives of your own, as long as you're not dumb enough to get caught. Hell, this is no more nefarious than what the guys with the serious money are doing all the time.

Vic (the funny, multifaceted and deeply human Brandon Whitehead) is the mentor who will introduce the boy to this mans world. (When we first see him he's whistling "When You Get Caught Between the Moon and New York City," establishing a musical theme early on.)

This spring, Barkhimer began collaborating with Brett Marks as a director. No matter how you look at it this was a good idea. Marks orchestrates the rhythms of the writer's urban poetry with such skill - honing the melody so clearly that he can obscure it within the harmonies of the marketplace then gently pull it back to the fore - eventually it resembles an anthem.

Together director and writer make what is billed to be a "fast-paced, coming-of-age comedy" into a proletariat parable worthy of Clifford Odets or John Millington Synge.

Marks and Barkhimer first collaborated on the staged reading this play for the "Warm-up Laps" of the "Boston Theater Marathon XV" in May. At that time, the play was necessarily overwritten, but the play still stood out as something remarkable with great potential. Now the duo has pruned and shaped the play into something even more exciting with deeper subtext and more moral ambiguities.

One of the distinct benefits of Barkhimer's writing is he is also an actor. Unlike Mamet who believes character is defined through the author's words and not the characters inner life, Barkhimer and Marks want their actors to be a creative force in the creation of the play.

There are no throwaway roles. Each of the five characters in this play is interesting and compelling with layers of backstory and subtext. Consequently Marks has cast five sensational actors whose subtlety and nuance live up to the complexity of the roles. And Marks positions them perfectly to pull this off. Not only crafting pretty pictures on stage, but setting up an environment where chemical reactions can take place.

For example, in a climactic moment, Marks corners our tiny protagonist with two of the most powerful performers in the cast, the legendary Will Lyman and the enormous Daniel Berger-Jones. In this scene Marks creates a triangle on stage, twisting it so that the most powerful figure, Lyman who plays Al the big boss, has his back turned completely toward us.

This pins the two employees to the wall behind them, trapping them like deer in headlights. Still, in this scenario Kenny is far more vulnerable because he is nowhere near the door. Subconsciously we see Lester (Berger-Jones) with twice the physical presence and a better means of escape.

In this staging, the audience not only becomes interrogators with Lyman, but empathetic spectators in a sadistic cockfight between David (Kenny) and Goliath (Lester). (Again costuming give us clues about character. Kenny wears the face of a talented musician that died young on his shirt, Jimi Hendrix, and Lester wears the logo of a corporate giant, Coke.) What follows is only a conversation, but we know that only one man will come out alive.

We expect great acting from icons like Lyman, but this is the finest performance I've seen from Daniel Berger-Jones. A multitalented actor with a vibrant stage presence and a powerful voice, he pulls nothing from his bag of tricks. Instead he fashions brilliant tactics in pursuit of his objective. He seduces us with a Machiavellian magic that is surprising.

Nael Nacer plays Rocco, the smallest role. Nacer has become the go-to guy in this city for a sincere, heartfelt performance. He's proven himself to have the charisma to headline a production, and when an actor is skillful at playing the lead it's hard for him to take a backseat and weave himself, seamlessly, into the fabric of a show with a character roll.

Nacer does not blend-in. He sticks out in this quintet like a thumb sticks out on a hand. (Brilliant costuming by Rachel Padula Shufelt helps with this.) But Nacer never stands out as an actor; he stands apart as a character, and this is a great testament to his talent. His character work is never obscured by his personality.

It's argued that Mamet cannot write women the way he writes men, perhaps because women are often skilled at communication, and Mamet's men meander in a verbal void.

Women live outside the world of "Windowmen" too. Here men aggressively set the boundaries of their territory by barking loudly, constantly sniffing out the situation and knowing when not to lift their leg.

Kenny is not just learning about the life through exchanges of money and machismo; he's learning about the thorny pathway of love. A new pledge to the land of labor, he's also embarking on his first important personal relationship. Meanwhile, Vic is managing the murky complexities of fatherhood.

The way that our protagonist defines himself in the company of men will dictate the way he functions in a family. By the end of the play, Kenny is bruised and battle scared and he wears his wounds with the same strut as he wears his Jimi Hendrix shirt. (No longer is he wearing a long sleeved shirt. Shufelt brings him to work in a "muscle" tee.) As he grows more manly within the work environment he assertively barks back when the tough guys in the yard try to pin him down and try to make him role over.

But when the boy aggressively crosses this threshold into manhood, he brings the same forcefulness into his home environment - reacting to a domestic situation with violence - and it ends his relationship, setting him on a new path in his life.

Though women are not allowed in fraternal plays like "Windowmen," a female presence permeates this play.

In a small town in Southern Utah, where 95% of the population ascribes to the same religion and a majority of the people will not watch television because they're afraid of the corruption of the outside world, I heard of a man named Derek Walcott, founder of the Boston Playwrights' Theatre. And I heard of a school that trained playwrights. "Windowmen" embodies all the things that I imagined would come from those playwrights and that school.

Though my ideas of what a play can be have changed drastically, my ideas of what a play should be have remained constant - a raw, potent, personal experience that unifies writer, performer and audience together in an experience that illuminates their mutual humanity. A play like this one.

"Windowmen" plays through Nov. 24
at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre -- Walcott Theatre
949 Commonwealth Ave

For tickets call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.bostonplaywrights.org