This review was originally published to Broadway World on May 26, 2016
Art isn't easy. From Edvard Munch's agoraphobia to Sarah Kane's depression, the art world's rap sheet for its dense population of individuals with mental illness is haunting. Just ask Turner, the newest "it talent" on the Chelsea art scene, who is struggling with a myriad of emotional and psychological trauma. Set on the night of Turner's newest art exhibition, Eyes Shut. Door Open. explores the tortured artist archetype by chronicling Turner's existential crisis.
The play opens on an art gallery in Chelsea and the confident, but intellectually bored Turner. His anguish with the art world is noticed by a moonlighting cocktail waitress named Johanna. The two chat briefly before sneaking away to Turner's apartment where he plays his flirtatious tricks to get Joanna in bed. Mysteriously, Johanna is obsessed in learning about the connection between Turner The Individual and Turner The Painter. She makes a discovery on a common thread in his artwork and calls him out on it. Turner balks at her theory and has to pedal faster in order to regain control of the conversation. Turner never does and loses what little grasp he had on it when his junkie brother named Palmer arrives for an unexpected visit. Because we all know how well family reunions play out, Turner spends the evening putting out flames that Palmer continues to fan all while trying to keep up his nonchalant artist appearance for Johanna.
One-act-real-time-dramedies are to the theatre world as Turner is to his own. It's Trendy. (Nobody loves hearing "90 minutes, no intermission" more than I) Requiring a simple unit set, three to five characters, and no restrictions on venue, these plays are easy to produce and allow actors meaty material to bite into. Eyes Shut. Door Open., co-produced by CMS Productions and Wax Wing Productions, written by Cassie M. Seinuk and running at Union Square's Warehouse XI through May 26, remains conscious of this formula and is overstuffed with plot twists implying it's more interested in checking off as many characteristics of the genre rather than presenting truthful drama. These sudden narrative shifts would be easier to digest if they were action driven instead of emotionally dependent. Unfortunately, emotion overpowers, leaving the audience feeling they get too much of everything and not enough of anything.
Mutilated prop and set pieces, aggressive stage combat, and heated debate of abstract themes are reminiscent of Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage and Art. The graphic fraternal cockfight of masculinity with a female antagonist is Mamet's device in Speed-The-Plow. (Luckily, Seinuk has more respect for Johanna than Mamet had for Karen.) Though containing similar aesthetics, the core of God of Carnage is a raw sociological examination of struggle. Eyes Shut. Door Open wrestles in finding its own core.
Director Christopher Randolph had Union Square's Warehouse XI converted into a two room Chelsea exhibition space. The first room is an art gallery with cash bar, works from Turner's collection on display, and background music. Randolph has the opening moment begin organically in the middle of the gallery with ticket holders surrounding him. The idea is fun, but once we are moved into the next room and are seated in a traditional setting, the opening experience feels less immersive and more like an attraction pre show at Disney World.
Warehouse XI's successful transformation is completed in part by Kyle Blanchette's crafty set and Christopher Bocchiaro's lights. Lauren Annese's props needed amplification in order to convey status. Many of the props looked like they didn't belong and the art design made Turner's talent appear that of a laymen.
As Palmer, Michael Underhill's hunchbacked physicality choices were stock considering his character wears an eye patch. Right or wrong, kudos are deserved for remaining committed throughout. Victor Shopov as Turner is strongest when his synthetic smile and puffed up chest deflate to reveal the insecurity consuming him. Melissa deJesus's two-faced Johanna is stronger before her ulterior motive is revealed. Another casualty of plot twisting, Johanna is the least developed character used to only introduce conflict or plot twists until exposition has run out forcing Seinuk to twist once again.
Most perplexing is the playwright's decision to omit the elements of danger and consequence from the world of her characters. This decision explains the unrestrained emotional tone of her play, but the choice left me wondering what matters in a world without these forms. Turner and Palmer drink an inconsumable amount of alcohol in 90 minutes and suffer no consequence. Johanna is held at knifepoint and doesn't flee to protect herself when she should. Why are we watching them battle one another if these characters don't care about their fate?
Answering this daunting question can help deliver a knockout punch of drama. When it's ignored, we are left with scenery chewing melodrama. It's obvious by the talent and commitment behind Eyes Shut. Door Open. that the potential is greater than that.