Chew on this: three strategically linked plays, penned by the same playwright, staged by three different directors working on the same stage with the same design team, performed in rotating rep by the same ensemble of 14 actors. Let’s hand it to scribe Adam Rapp. “The Hallway Trilogy” is the kind of flashy project that resident theater companies love to play with. The constant element here is the hallway setting of a grubby tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Variables include the shifting time frame and changing cast of characters. But the unifying theme? Aye, there’s the rub.
The pre-war walkup where all three plays take place is already dirty and run down (in Beowulf Boritt’s depressing set design) when the cycle opens in 1953 with “Rose.” The hallway foot traffic is heavy because the despotic super lives in one of the apartments on this floor, plotting new ways to cheat and terrorize the tenants.
The browbeaten residents who come and go in this hallway (all authentically dressed for the period by Jessica Pabst) are vivid specimens of the wary immigrants, fervent political zealots, lonely war widows, struggling singles, and crackpot individuals who made the Lower East Side the idiosyncratic neighborhood it was in the postwar 50s.
The earnest but futile efforts of these incongruent characters to kick over the traces of culture and class and touch one another are mostly funny, but often touching. Or they might have been if Rapp, acting as his own director, hadn’t imposed such a peculiar performance style on the piece. Some thesps (notably Guy Boyd as the disgusting slob of a super and Julianne Nicholson as the tenant who barters herself for the rent) manage to brush off the portentous silences and drawn out line readings that reduce their roles to caricature. Others don’t .
Katherine Waterston makes the most effective escape from this mannered style with her delicate portrayal of Rose Hathaway, a would-be actress who comes knocking on the door of the super, who happens to be named Eugene O’Neill. News of the playwright’s death made all the newspapers that morning. But Rose has reason to believe that O’Neill is alive and well and living in the super’s apartment, and Waterston sweetly allows her the dignity of her delusions.
Aside from the removal of a graffito from the wall, the tenement hallway has seen no dramatic improvements in the 50 years between “Rose” and “Paraffin.” The tenants aren’t much better at interpersonal relationships, either; but their unrealized yearnings for intimacy establish a genuine connection between the two plays.
Although “Paraffin” is no less episodic than “Rose” a dynamic love triangle gives it more structure. Margo (another marvelous perf from Nicholson) is six months pregnant and married to Denny (brave work from William Apps), a junkie musician so irresponsible that only a masochistic woman would put up with him. Denny’s surly brother Lucas (played with intensity by Jeremy Strong), who came back from Afghanistan in a wheelchair, rents a room in the apartment next door.
The power blackout that had New Yorkers cheerfully partying in the streets in the summer of 2003 gives the three principals the freedom to act on their repressed feelings. But the blackout gives the other tenants the same opportunity to lose their inhibitions, and Daniel Aukin’s relaxed and rather genial helming allows them to make the most of it — at least, until the lights come back on.
But whatever thematic links might be found in the first two plays completely snap in “Nursing.” All disease has been wiped out in this dystopian nightmare set in 2053, but the “Museum of Disease and Nursing” (just opened in the old tenement building) allows voyeurs (that would be us, the audience) to observe what happens to the human body when exposed to diseases like the bubonic plague and cholera.
This human guinea pig is a volunteer named Lloyd Boyd (in a polished, but punishing performance by Logan Marshall-Green) who is repeatedly injected with hideous diseases and brought to the point of death before being resuscitated to suffer some more. Throughout this unbearable exercise in sadism he writhes, he screams, he runs around naked — for what purpose Rapp does not tell us. But what the bad-boy playwright does communicate loud and clear is that he couldn’t care less about his regional theater chances.