Hot Season, at the Sheen Center, 18 Bleecker, has a lot to say, all of it in the first act.
The premise is grim: a twenty-first-century Bubonic plague is devouring people, wreaking havoc and panic on the roads and at the markets. Our five players retreat to a remote cabin, site of family summer vacations, to wait it out. They’ve thought it through. They have a plan that includes the ultimate solution — injectables that will end the life of any among them who contract the disease.
In Act One, playwright Evan Mueller artfully establishes the backstory. The mother, Anne (Heather Lupton Rasche), prefers to see this desperate retreat as a nostalgic return to the days when she and her three boys and her now dead husband summered at the lake and played at being the happy American family.
Of the three “boys” — two of Anne’s own and a third, Dan, whom they wrapped into the family — only Dan (Mike Mihm) and Jake (Michael Satow) make it to the cabin. They entertain us with a barrage of adolescent repartee, heavy on fart jokes and gay slams. They might be verbal puppies for much of the early action, and you register that they are soothing themselves and the others with brio and bravado that pre-date the menace outside.
Natalie (Kristen Harlow), the long-suffering wife of Dan, inured to his prodigious interest in self-produced methane, pushes the action along. She taunts the other young woman, Marla (Kenzie Nothnagel), whom Natalie sees as a princess, protected by the bubble-wrap of family wealth. “Nat” drives much of the emotional gear shifting in Hot Season.
Marla is an interloper; in the cabin under false pretenses. She is the discarded girlfriend of the other brother, who’s come to get him back. Though she is the outlier, Mueller makes her the moral center of the play.
Director Kevin J. Kittle moves his characters around the black-box space with efficient grace. There is room for them to run to the outside or to the off-stage bedrooms, or even to the forbidding nursery but, for most of the play, all or most of these folks are on stage.
Hot Season (with a nod to Poe) is only superficially about the Red Death. It has you laughing out loud at the playful antics among the core family. The “daughters of the house” spice up the action with sexual flavors and sly observation. The characters are genuine; you believe them as they poke and prod each other, sometimes with a tickle, sometimes a thrust.
The writing is snappy and fast for much of the two-hour performance. It is subtly laced with wonderful classic references, like the sudden influx of toads/frogs at the cabin, one of the ten plagues recited at the Seder table.
The playwright’s problem, it seems, is making the transition to the inevitable conclusion. We care about these people, and we feel we know them, and we even think we know how they are likely to behave in extremis. So, when the inevitable comes it is inevitably flat. Hot Season suffers with second act problems. Perhaps it is a one act in the making.
The Sheen Center alone is an eye-opener. It’s spanking-new, 25,000-square feet includes two theaters and four rehearsal studios available for rent. It is owned and operated by the Archdiocese of New York and named for Fulton J. Sheen, an archbishop and a television star of the 1950’s.
Hot Season – by Evan Mueller; directed by Kevin J. Kittle
WITH: Kristen Harlow (Natalie), Mike Mihm (Dan), Kenzie Nothnagel (Marla), Heather Lupton Rasche (Anne), Michael Satow (Jacob).
Set design and technical direction by Ben Williams with an assist from Carlos Aguilar. Lighting design by Mitch Ost. Sound design and original music by Ryder McNair. Travis Boatright did the costumes and Alberto Bonilla choreographed the fight.
From Strange Sun Theater Company at the Sheen Center, 18 Bleecker Street, Manhattan, through June 28th. Running time: two hours with one intermission.