By Stanford Friedman
Dust storms and flash flooding are hallmarks of Arizona’s monsoon season. But in the dark and twisty Monsoon Season that playwright and Phoenix native Lizzie Vieh and the All For One Theater company bring to town after a run at the Edinburgh Fringe, destructive forces come from within. There are nose bleeds and an amphetamine addiction rather than hail and lightning. Still, birds fall from the sky, people get pummeled and there are shocks, both electrical and comic.
Danny (Richard Thieriot) and his ex-wife Julia (Therese Plaehn) are sleep deprived and a tad depraved. Only recently divorced, Danny cannot muster the wherewithal to buy window curtains for his new crash pad and the glaring sign from the strip joint across from his unpacked home keeps him awake. This has less than beneficial effects on his two jobs as he stresses out while providing IT phone support and nearly runs off the road putting in hours for Uber. Julia’s insomnia is more straightforward: she’s hooked on Adderall. She spends her time making frantic beauty tip YouTube videos when she is not otherwise quickly ruining her career as a makeup artist.
Over the course of a speedy 70 minutes, in a series of ominous bang-bang blackouts finely paced by director Kristin McCarthy Parker, Danny and Julia’s breakup takes its toll on them and those around them, before a final and criminal reversal of fate sparks new hope for their relationship. The All For One Theater specializes in staging solo performances but they cheat the concept here by presenting Danny’s story in Scene One and Julia’s in Scene Two. The characters do not monologize, rather they engage in dialogue where we hear only one side of any given conversation. It’s a he said, she said gambit that provides the audience with the satisfying tasks of first being weirded out by Danny’s actions, then piecing the whole sordid tale together as we see what Julia has been up to.
Danny’s scenes are full of red flags and false flags. Birds keep smashing into his office window. He has relentless nose bleeds. His mother is dying and his four-year-old daughter, Sammy, hates him. Plus, there is his unhealthy obsession with decapitation that manifests itself in numerous ways including “a nightmare where my wife tosses me a water balloon full of blood.” When he goes shopping for a chainsaw, one cannot help but fear the worst, especially since he has grown quite jealous over Julia having a new live-in boyfriend.
For her part, Julia nearly electrocutes herself trying out a “VitaMask 3000, the latest in Korean at-home face-lift technology,” gulps pills at a rapid pace, barely copes with Sammy and has some bizarre ornithological issues of her own. That new boyfriend, Shane, is both a handyman and, handily, a drug dealer, who will come to regret leaving his hammer lying around the house.
Thieriot is quite likable as Danny, frustrated without exploding, sad without tearing up, sympathetic without being schmaltzy. When Danny chooses to buy Sammy a pet hermit crab instead of a kitten, the choice of picking a creature that carries its home around with him makes perfect, commiserative sense. Meanwhile, Julia is so hopped up on goofballs that Plaehn has little choice but to play her at a manic pace and her decisions are so misguided that there is little pity for Plaehn to unearth.
The downside of the play’s structure is that while it nicely captures the selfishness of both Danny and Julia, the unseen characters are never fully realized. There was not a moment when I believed that their daughter actually existed and Shane was no more than a plank in the plot. Still, in a topsy-turvy storm like this one, it is understandable that any ungrounded characters would be swept away.
Monsoon Season – By Lizzie Vieh; Directed by Kristin McCarthy Parker.
WITH: Richard Thieriot (Danny) and Therese Plaehn (Julia).
Scenic Design by You-Shin Chen; Lighting Design by Sarah Johnston; Sound Design by Emma Wilk; Costume Design by Haydee Zelideth; Production Stage Manager, Kara Kaufman. All For One Theater at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, https://www.afo.nyc/monsoonseason. Through November 23. Running time: 70 minutes.