Last night I had the pleasure of seeing the latest by Dora-nominated playwright Michael Ross Albert (Tough Jews, The Grass is Greenest at the Houston Astrodome): the 141 Collective’s production of Anywhere. In this timely new thriller, Liz (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), a young business woman away at a conference, returns home to her AirBnB to find her host, Joy (Cass Van Wyck), has been waiting up for her. What starts as a cordial and relatively typical conversation quickly unravels as we learn of their drunken encounter the previous night, one that leaves the two women fighting in a dark and increasingly frightening battle for control.
The show has a stellar cast – Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster epitomizes the uptight, bland businesswoman, one whose life has become so mundane that a bus tour conference and night partying with a stranger, her single-mom AirBnB host Joy, is clearly the most thrilling thing to happen to her in months. As the night wears on drinks are poured and secrets are revealed, leading to the unnerving realization that all the patience and polite conversation is a front, and the audience meets the real Liz, one who is cutting, competitive, and fiercely cynical. As Joy, the single-mother to a terminally ill 8-year-old, Cass Van Wyck elicits both sympathy and disgust, as her lifestyle choices make us question her suitability as a parent, and her motives in revealing herself to her guest make us question her morality. The clever writing combined with the subtle acting choices of both woman leave us wondering who the real victim is in this bizarre game of cat and mouse.
While I was impressed by the acting and writing, the directing by David Lafontaine unfortunately left something to be desired. Staging was too stationary, and often I felt as though the actors had been told to move just for something to do. We lost the full potential of some well-charged moments that were oddly staged upstage, obscured by the large and, I think, unnecessary dining table. Too often the actors, as well as the majority of the set pieces, were playing in the same plane, making it so that the movement was noticeably less dynamic than the words and emotion being presented onstage. I hope this show continues to have a life after Fringe, and that some changes are made to staging to allow it to see its full potential.
Aside from the unimpressive staging, the only issue I found with this play was in the last minute and a half, where the sudden change in in momentum left me confused, rather than shaken, as I think was intended. After a fight between Liz and Joy becomes physical, Liz whacks Joy over the head with a large, heavy chessboard, knocking her to the ground and leaving her seemingly, for a moment, unconscious. This is how I expected the play to end; Joy, now seriously injured if not dead, is left lying in a pool of blood on the floor, while Liz, realizing there is no turning back from the culmination of strange events in what should have been the most mundane of weeks, takes the place she held at the start of the play. I imagined Liz would sit down and wait, knowing that what led them to this place didn’t matter, because regardless of who was right and who had “won” the battle, she had been the one to call “checkmate” and end the war. She had sealed her own fate. Instead, Joy suddenly leaps from the ground, now covered in blood, and stumbles forward confused, shrieking that she can’t see. The lights dim as Liz cradles Joy’s bleeding head her in her hands, telling her not to worry because her son Ethan is “right there”. I’m not sure what we’re meant to take away here – is Joy’s confusion the result of a head injury? Of the night’s drinking? Both? Is Liz’s sudden compassion out of fear? Guilt? Is Joy dying? After an hour of well-scripted, naturally building tension I found these last few moments questioned all of the night’s events, but not in a way that left me intrigued so much as just confused.
**END OF SPOILERS**
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this production. In a digital age where we can learn intimate details about a person before even meeting them, Anywhere is a necessary examination of the difference between intimacy and knowledge, and with a knock-out cast of rising indie stars Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Cass Van Wyck, this is surely one to add to your “must see” list.