In the olden days — “olden” meaning mid-20th century — plays were designed for people with attention spans. Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams specialized in three-act dramas wherein each act would consist of a single long scene. Character relationships would unfold in long swaths of dialogue. Spaces would seem small and claustrophobic. Themes and storylines would gradually precipitate, rather than steer the action. Unlike the jerky, jump-cutty, sitcom-oriented works of contemporary playwrights, these more traditional plays would feature no scene changes or blackouts. That meant no one had the option of sneaking out.
Playwright Steve Yockey used the same technique in Disassembly, his new offbeat comedy about an accident-prone — or at least perennially injured — guy named Evan. The play, which premieres this week at Impact Theatre, is one continuous event from beginning to end. That makes it quite distinct from Yockey’s last play, Large Animal Games, which was a series of vignettes based on a theme. Director Desdemona Chiang says she finds the new style refreshing. She says it was probably a natural result of Yockey’s writing process: “I know initially the first draft of the play he wrote in one night,” she offered.
Disassembly features seven characters, among them Evan’s batty yet oddly sympathetic sister, his fiancée, a mild-mannered wallflower (played by the ever-endearing Seth Thygesen), and a cat lady neighbor. Everyone has his own neuroses and his own secrets to guard. Much of the action is about uncovering truths and ironing out relationships — all accomplished through a series of “reveals.”
Both Yockey and Chiang are products of the Impact system, which is very much about nurturing undiscovered playwrights and directors. Yockey debuted his first play with Impact in 2006. Since then he’s produced three more works with the company, and gone on to premiere works at other venues throughout the Bay Area — including San Francisco’s Magic Theatre. Chiang came to Impact in 2004, initially to play the part of Lady MacDuff. She says she auditioned on a lark, and doesn’t consider herself a born actress. Nonetheless, Chiang quickly became enamored of the scrappy enterprise, which has long survived in the basement of a pizza parlor. “We’d scrounge and scrape and steal and borrow,” she said, trying to explain how directors Cheshire Isaacs and Melissa Hillman consistently make something out of nothing.
In some ways it pays to have such a small operation. Hillman keeps tabs on the graduating classes from New York University, and she’s always scouring master’s programs to find the most promising new playwrights. As a result, Impact has become an incredibly successful incubator, grooming people like Yockey, Enrique Urueta (author of the fabulous pop culture farce, Learn to Be Latina), and Joshua Conkel, whose play MilkMilkLemonade provided a different kind of parable about growing up gay in small-town America. In Yockey’s case, the company-director relationship is strong enough to ensure a near-flawless transition from page to stage. Yockey wanted the characters in Disassembly to stew together like chemicals in a vial, so that, ultimately, the play’s title would seem warranted. Chiang hewed to his vision. Disassembly runs through June 11 at LaVal’s Subterranean Theatre (1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley). $10-$20. ImpactTheatre.com
Update: The original version of this story said that Desdemona Chiang played the role of Lady Macbeth. In fact, she played Lady MacDuff.