by Margret Echeverria
9/10 written by Richard Willet and Directed by Eliza Beckwith opened this week at The Gene Frankel Theater, which is so small that, arriving early, I got some time to look at the set and props up close. The chunky thick keyboards in the office set-up remind me of days spent in over-time pounding away to make rent. My touch is lighter now since September 11, 2001, when I learned that everything is temporary and breakable. This play visits four tender stories that unfold toward midnight on September 10, 2001 in the towers of the World Trade Center.
Roberto (Vincent Rame), an Otis Elevator subcontractor, has a boom box that annoys the hell out of Walter (Jessie Barnes), who has been working building security since the towers opened in 1973. Barnes seems to pull Rame into the scene, which feels a little cold and disconnected making it a bit long. The two men have a generation between them, very different taste in music and counter ideas of professionalism. In their second scene together, Barnes and Rame are warmed up keeping pace with one another talking of what scares these characters, the spirit world and racism; and what comforts them, music. A new friendship blossoms just as the paranormal takes center stage. Barnes, whose honest character work deserves a pay off, doesn’t get it because Rame delivers something too presentational in the climax to believe.
Grace (Renee-Michele Brunet in this performance) is an actress with a day job who has been given permission to rehearse with Roy (Milai Taguchi) in one of the executive office spaces in the towers. Brunet literally just got the script for 9/10 two days ago, which she holds in tandem with the prop script her character is rehearsing. Brunet proves her talent giving a rather natural performance in impossible circumstances. Taguchi embodies the loneliness of architectural genius, Minoro Yamasaki, who designed the World Trade Center and about whom Roy is writing a one man show. Loneliness threads between these two characters who are so focused on their artistic ambitions that they skim the deeper available connection. Brunet and Taguchi transcend the technical obstacle of what is nearly a cold reading exercise and their characters find a bit of the magical symmetry the writing calls for.
In a store room we find a young couple, Allison (Alexandra Salter) and Colin (Sean Gordon), who are attending a wedding, presumably at Windows on the World. He is a fireman at the beginning of his career and she is the daughter in a family of firefighters who lost her father to a burn and cares for her brother who lives disfigured after a burn. Salter gives us the Irish descendent who is tiny, so fierce she might be carrying
a knife and who resolves her anxieties by feeding her obsession with the Titanic at the 42nd Street Library. Gordon towers over her in his formal fireman’s dress and is very physical with Salter, but never feels threatening, even when Alllison dresses down Colin for not asserting himself further up the ranks at the firehouse. I would have been a little more tearful when the layers of this long friendship get pulled back and these two actors give us the healing flames of true romantic love, but I did not believe the feisty and avoidant Allison would allow herself to be kept from the wedding party in a dusty storage room for as long as it takes Colin to get to the point. A problem easily fixed by cutting a bit of the text.
The story that really got me was that of office worker, Scott (Royce Thomas Johnson), and temp office worker, Sahar (Chandini Prakash). Prakash and Johnson are fully living their characters as they confront cultural differences and innate prejudice in an earnest effort to be good to one another. We witness unexpected acts of kindness like Scott heating up Sahar’s couscous in the kitchen even though Sahar has been chatting forever and not doing a lick of work. Prakash speaks her funny heart-stinger lines a little fast at times, which is unfortunate because we like her so much that we want to hear them. Both characters work out boundaries with each other and, in the process, make willing sacrifices with their eyes opened to each other’s humanity. But one final sacrifice is made blindly because tomorrow is unknown to them – and because we know, it shatters us. I am reminded that the tragedy of the following day set our species back decades in our path to enlightenment and I got that longing to go back.
With Jessie Barnes Jr. (Walter), Sean Gordon (Colin), Royce Thomas Johnson (Scott), Kimberly Prentice (Grace), Renee-Michele Brunet (Grace Understudy), Chandini Prakash (Sahar), Vincent Rame (Roberto), Alexandra Salter (Allison) and Milai Taguchi (Roy).
Set design, Maureen Weiss; lighting design, Ethan Samaha; costume design, Kim B. Walker; sound design, Jay Cowit; stage manager, Leslie Hunh.