By Sarah Downs
It’s not clear what relation the title of this play has to do with its content. There is nothing fierce about it. In Fiercely Independent, Kathleen K. Johnson has cobbled together a series of awkward vignettes, separated by several lights up/lights down scene changes — in a 70 minute piece?– but does not succeed in creating a through line. The story of incompatibility and confusion starts nowhere and ends pretty much in the same place.
The one-set show, lit and designed by Will Cotton, opens on the innocuous scene of a hotel bedroom, whose anonymity is effectively conveyed in everything from the nearly barren walls to the generic nature of the furniture, down to the chairs. (I’m sure I’ve seen those chairs in a Marriott Suites somewhere.) Julie (Caitlin Gallogly) and Robert (Christopher M. Smith), married only four years, have stopped getting along. Unable to get out of their own heads, they dramatize those four years into a major investment, as if life has passed them by, leaving them desperate and alone. And yet, neither of them seems to have heard of couple’s therapy. So Julie hits on the idea that they should isolate themselves in a hotel room for 24 hours, with no distractions and no outside contact save the bellman (Jordan Sobel) to hammer out their issues. Among the parameters of this arrangement she includes a comprehensive, one might say mean spirited list of all the things they cannot do. Not surprisingly, this idea proves less than salutary. Both Julie and Robert are ready to quit and unwilling to bend, so locking themselves in a cage with each other will only intensify their frustration. If Fiercely Independent had taken the opportunity to explore the very pointlessness of the exercise, to dig into the fact that women and men often communicate the same feelings in different ways; that women want words, but a man will think his presence is enough — and neither of them is wrong — we might have gotten somewhere. As it was, I just wanted to hand Robert and Julie a copy of Deborah Tannen’s “You Just Don’t Understand” and cut to the chase.
As Robert and Julie, Smith and Gallogly work very hard to create some sort of heat, but in addition to lacking ferocity, the narrative lacks arc. Smith grounds his character instantly, with natural warmth and ease. Even when angry he maintains some depth in his character. By contrast, Gallogly spends most of the play fidgeting. Perhaps the point was to contrast her frenetic, more desperate energy with his very human, deflated defeat. At any rate, Gallogly throws everything she’s got at the character, but the material just won’t budge. The signals are there — she’s angry, she’s crying, they’re sexy, he’s distant, he’s angry, both want to leave — but the emotion doesn’t effectively cross the footlights.
Of course, the script does neither actor any favors. It starts with Julie and Robert’s lack of empathy for each other, takes them along a non-journey of her telling him all the things that are wrong with him, and then fizzles out, to the extent that the audience literally had no idea the play had ended. Ironically, Julie’s complaint that Robert looks at her but doesn’t see her has found its parallel in a play that talks a lot but says nothing.
Fiercely Independent, written and directed by Kathleen K. Johnson, with Caitlin Gallogly (Julie), Christopher M. Smith (Robert) and Jordan Sobel (Bellman). Set and lighting design by Will Cotton; and costume design by Rodney Harper. Original music and lyrics are written by Andrew David Sotomayor.
At the SoHo Playhouse, for a five-week limited engagement through April 7; Wednesdays through Fridays at 7 pm; Saturdays at 2 and 7 pm, and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are $59 and can be purchased at www.fiercelysoho.com/or call 212-691-1555. Running time is 70 minutes, with no intermission.