A Measure of Normalcy pays more attention to its themes than its characterizations; the figures here only occasionally emerge as people we can identify with, before, during and after their strained onstage transformations.
A Measure of Normalcy by Lucas Baisch. Directed by David R. Gammons. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, 267 Main St., Gloucester, MA, through November 1.
By Robert Israel
Numerous ideas swirl through playwright Lucas Baisch’s maelstrom of a one-act play, now being given its world premiere at Gloucester Stage. The piece is set in a nameless Midwestern mini-mall, where its five characters intersect—sometimes conjoining, sometimes repelling one another. The dominant notion is that they are being mauled at the mall, a place where deconstruction is served along with the burritos at the food court. The problem is that A Measure of Normalcy pays more attention to its themes than its characterizations; the figures here only occasionally emerge as people we can identify with, before, during, and after their strained onstage transformations. The playwright wants to create a vision of social breakdown: a world where mind-numbing tasks destroy brain cells, where fantasy may be the new “normal,” and where lives gone adrift give way to wanton cruelty and alienation. But the play’s myriad collisions are more exhausting than illuminating.
A Measure of Normalcy is a work-in-progress—with disjointed scenes that might be fun exercises for an acting class. It fails to coalesce into a fully realized and articulated work. In his director’s note, David R. Gammons trumpets playwright Baisch’s work as “mesmerizing.” It is hardly that at all—unless one defines mesmerized by the disjointedness one feels while furtively groping for a missing thread in the script that would rope all the mayhem together.
Or maybe what is missing is a master computer chip? Gammons, whose directorial chops are often stellar, gravitates toward edgy new scripts that explore technology as the catalyst and culprit of what is seen as our quickening transformation into automatons. At first blush, Courtney Nelson’s set reminded me of the one used in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of Necessary Monsters, which Gammons directed. But this time the miked chain-link cage was missing. The productions share additional uses of technology—the row of television sets aglow at the rear of the stage, blinking and winking their inanities, and the fluorescent lighting that glares down on the set, the players, and audience. This repetition is a sure sign that anti-techno pictorials have become a cliche.
The fault with production is not with the actors, except when they turn their backs to the audience while they are physically and verbally assaulting one another. It is hard to hear what they are saying. Throughout the evening the cast rallies and provides bits of order, particularly Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, who plays the hapless Casey, the young manager of the burrito restaurant. This is a boss who is losing her grip on reality. She tells new employee Gus (Gabriel Graetz) that she fears she is slipping into darkness. She further reveals she is slowly becoming a cartoon version of herself. Unfortunately, Gus’s attempt at compassion—coming up with a human response to a woman undergoing some sort of psychotic split—comes off as half-baked. Maybe Casey is already too far-gone, maybe he lacks the human instincts for nurturing, and maybe he’s adrift like everyone else in the play. (There may be three or four other possibilities.) Baisch never lets us know for sure because this is a play about dehumanization that can’t provide convincing moments of humanity.
Sarah Elizabeth Bedard plays Ari, and there is a moment when the play seems to be heading somewhere. She gets in Casey’s face, to the the point that you figure where will be a clash, fisticuffs, a catfight. The stand-off is intensely acted, and it looks as if the battle will become inflamed. Ari is peddling some sort of intoxicant that she keeps in vials attached to her arm. We never learn what the drug is, but assume it must be a nasty hallucinogen. When Bedard gets close to her prey, she’s riveting. But Baisch is too busy exploring various ideas of cultural meltdown to unleash her fury. The scene, like the scraps of burritos on the floor, decomposes. Yes, Bedard mounts a molehill of interconnected restaurant chairs, flailing her arms about like a banshee. Yes, she crisscrosses the stage purring some sort of dirge. And, yes, she certainly seems threatening. (Time to call the mall cop.) But to what end? It is lost in the fast-food chaos.
At one point during this mish-mash, Gus exclaims, “I don’t know what I’m doing here.” I could empathize. In its present incarnation, A Measure of Normalcy calls for radical dramaturgical surgery. Character interactions need to be developed; how and why they interact needs to be carefully plotted. Runaway notions of social and personal breakdown have to be corralled. Bits and pieces of humanity need to be expressed by each character along the way—if only so that we can keenly feel the loss of individuality in a society dedicated to runaway homogenization.
Still, it is always a thrill to encounter an ambitious new playwright like Baisch, who wants to take us into a new world. This production suggests that with more patience, more nurturance, and yes, considerable rewriting, this befuddling play could eventually offer more than bells, whistles, and blinking screens.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel, and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.