by Margret Echeverria
One night in the mid-nineties, one of my first roommates in New York City, a Princeton graduate student at the time, said to me in round South Carolinian high society drawl soaked in very good bourbon, “You know, Margret, you’re not an intellectual; you’re a creative.” It was an insult, I was sure. But I did not have the intellect at the time, nor the creativity to deliver a swift clever comeback. And so I walked around with the sting of that statement for years on my heart. Is it the prevailing opinion that creative minds are worth less that has so many of us becoming corporate slaves in order to buy groceries? While in the audience at DROPPING GUMBALLS ON LUKE WILSON by Rob Ackerman and directed by Theresa Rebeck now playing at A.R.T., the sting of my affliction returned and I was comforted to know that I am not alone in the struggle.
This is a true story told from the perspective of the props guy on the set of an AT&T commercial in 2010, the shooting of which went a bit off the rails. The playwright, Rob Ackerman (George Hampe), was said props guy on this particular job and Hampe inhabits Rob’s body with a nervous personality, twitches, an explosive creative mind, a blossoming new love for Jenny (Reyna de Courcy), a props rookie, and he has a keen desire to achieve success while not pissing anyone off. These days, corporate executives, the laziest minds who we inexplicably find on top, often make the “how” decisions about the creative visuals without regard to safety or any other practical concerns and creative staffs submit to this absurdity because they have dreams to feed. This is how it came to pass that real, hard, red gumballs were dropped from a height that basic physics principles dictate is dangerous onto the head of a vulnerable Luke Wilson (Jonathan Sale).
The blurring of morality on this set does not just come from creative minds versus corporate ones. But also the optimism of youth versus the cynicism of hard knocks in the old timers like Ken (Dean Nolan). Ken is steady, has a heart and discipline to which Rob aspires, but his priorities surprise when he confronts those drunk with power. Nolan uses few words to break our hearts when we discover he just wants to survive another day and get paid. Rob is challenged to find an ally. The union will not be cool about an upset Luke Wilson. But the playback is fantastic when Luke’s head is bashed with balls, says legendary director Errol Morris (David Wohl) who is convinced he is the smartest person in the room and this spot will be shot his way or the axe will make its way to any defiant crew head’s livelihood. I laughed because this conflict is so familiar to me having been an actor on commercial sets and it is certainly too late to cry. My husband, my date, laughed because surely this is just a fun exaggeration, right?
The casting of this show is deliciously perfect. I’m sucked in and the familiar anxiety arises within me because the characters are true to life. The anxiety is relieved by the portraits of humanity in the madness. Who still has the will to fight back? Who will just comfort me with whispered agreement that there is a bit of fascism happening here. There is, right? I’m not crazy. Alice (Ann Herada), First Assistant Director, is the mistress of the set I have seen many times before. Her personal life is loaded with emergencies far beyond my drama queen existence yet she is there, on time and in control . . . maybe . . . so no one better
complain about a thing . . . until these characters just can’t help themselves and it all comes tumbling out. This work environment sucks. Who are we, really? How did this happen to us? How much do we compromise for a buck? What is even real? Even the forbidden memory of IBM’s association with the Nazis is dragged out over the hot coals. Does anyone still remember THAT?
Get your skates on. Go see this one before it disappears.
DROPPING GUMBALLS ON LUKE WILSON – by Rob Ackerman; Directed by Theresa Rebeck.
WITH Reyna de Courcy (Jenny), George Hampe (Rob), Ann Harada (Alice), Dean Nolen (Ken), Jonathan Sale (Luke Wilson), David Wohl (Errol Morris).
Scenic Design, Christopher Swader and Justin Swader; Costume Design, Tricia Barsamian; Lighting Design, Mary Ellen Stebbins; sound Design, Bart Fasbender; Vido Design, Yana Biryukova; Properties, Addison Heeren; Production Stage Manager, Avery Trunko.
Through July 6 at A.R.T./ New York Theatre’s Mezzanine Theater (502 W. 53rd Street) in Manhattan. Mondays through Thursdays at 7 pm; Fridays & Saturdays at 8 pm; Saturday matinees at 2 pm. — Special retiree matinee Weds 6/19 2 pm. No matinee Sat 6/22. – GUMBALLS will not perform on Sundays. Tickets are $40 (Reserved Tickets); $30 (General Admission) and $25 (Student/Senior/Union Members), they are available at TheWorkingTheater.org, or by calling the Box Office (Ovationtix) at 866.811.4111. Group discounts available for groups of 10+ by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for group sales info.