Playwright Allison Moore probably wasn’t the first person to see the 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse as a metaphor for other things falling apart. But she was the first person to turn it into a perfectly plotted play about a failing relationship. Moore’s new world premiere, Collapse, was incubated through Aurora Theatre‘s Global Age Project, which encourages playwrights to develop material around 21st-century issues. Like Robert Glaudini‘s 2007 play Jack Goes Boating — which came to Aurora two years ago — Collapse provides a fresh take on traditional romantic comedy by spicing it up with contemporary dialogue and interstitial music. The play draws on an old form but simultaneously tries to subvert that form.
Well, almost. It’s never quite clear whether Moore came up with her title before she wrote the play, or if the theme just emerged naturally. Whatever the case, she ultimately got seduced by the idea of wrapping things up neatly. Collapse starts out offbeat, and turns out surprisingly conventional.
Or maybe it’s just apropos of a new trope in the theater world — that of playwrights staging works that are actually aspiring TV pilots. Collapse starts off with the perfect setup for a situation comedy. The skeleton of the Interstate 35W bridge looms behind a small flat in Minneapolis, where Hannah (Carrie Paff) is trying to iron out the kinks in her marriage, namely, by getting pregnant. Her husband David (Gabriel Marin) has turned into something of an indolent, though clues in the script let on that it’s probably a recent development. David pretends to be an alcoholic, for instance, but he only drinks beer — and when Hannah’s back is turned, he pours it into a house plant.
Enter Susan (Amy Resnick), Hannah’s annoying slacker sister, who barges in with her two large suitcases and an annoying sense of joie de vivre. Resnick plays Susan as the perfect foil to stiff, stylish Hannah: One is an attorney, the other a drifter recently laid off from her job at a cable access channel. One is well-coiffed, the other rumpled. One speaks in social niceties, the other uses phrases like, “Hey, I’m open! I’m open to the floooow!” David retracts on an easy chair, clearly annoyed but also defenseless. And it only gets more complicated.
The show, directed by Jessica Heidt, is done very much in the style of a Seinfeld episode. Scenes are quick and often consist of a single dialogue, during which characters gradually reveal things about themselves. The “reveal” seems to be another hallmark of contemporary theater. It’s a way of structuring the story for maximal comic or dramatic effect. We find out in the second or third scene that David is suffering from PTSD and that Hannah had a miscarriage. And we’ll later learn that “Ted, the Bulldog” (Aldo Billingslea), a sex addict who becomes Hannah’s one-way spiritual guide, has an odd handicap that makes him rather benign. Most dialogues follow the form of a cross-examination or confession. They always have some kind of built-in tension — logically, David should hook up with Susan, and Hannah should get with Ted, though it doesn’t quite work out that way. And, right at the climax, the lights always dim and that tell-tale sitcom bass line (or melodic jazz piano line) rears its ugly head.
The main selling point is the acting, which is absolutely phenomenal. Hopefully, Billingslea will resist being typecast as a nymphomaniac, because he does it extremely well in Collapse. Sitting at a cafe table with Hannah, he leans toward her and grins expectantly, unctuously forking a slab of apple pie. Somehow, he manages all those motions with his legs splayed in a near-physically impossible position, one kneecap pointed north, the other due south. Hannah responds by brushing back her bone-blond hair and slumping bashfully in her seat, which suddenly seems small and unwieldy. Resnick, for her part, has all the slacker mannerisms down, from her slumped shoulders to the way she sits with her knees drawn up. Marin is clearly the best actor of all. He’s able to convey emotion not just through vocal range and body language, but with a mere flick of his eyes. In Bay Area theater he’s pretty recognizable, but always able to melt into a character so well that you forget who you’re watching.
Thus, he and Paff manage to nail an overly dramatic scene at the end, when they’re both dangling from the bridge — literally. It’s the moment when Collapse goes from being smartly contemporary to being the kind of comedy where things are neatly and artificially resolved. Still, these actors handle it capably. The last scene is unnecessary, but the penultimate one turns out fine. The bridge itself — designed by Melpomene Katakalos — is probably made of wood, but it looks like real steel. It’s a spectral presence throughout, hanging atop the stage, dangling into Hannah and David’s living room, and imposing on their daily lives. Eventually, the structural behemoth makes good on its metaphoric potential.