Till the End of the World

Sleepwalkers Theatre is devoting its whole season to the world premiere of This World and After, a trilogy by East Bay playwright J.C. Lee that takes place before and after an impending apocalypse. You wouldn’t know catastrophe’s a-coming from the first installment in the trilogy, This World Is Good, which Sleepwalkers is currently performing at San Francisco’s small Phoenix Theatre in the heart of the theatre district.

Dina Percia and Shoresh Alaudini in This World Is Good. Photo by Clay Robeson

Spanning the years 1994 to 1999, the play explores the theme of potential global catastrophe through the now quaint-seeming millennial anxiety around the possibility of a Y2K bug shutting down the world’s systems. One central character has even written a comic book about an asteroid crashing into the earth. But the only world ending in This World Is Good is a very personal one.

Ally is a grad student working on a study of the grunge subculture right around the time of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. When her mother, who doesn’t believe in phones, shows up to tell her that her younger brother Sam tried to kill himself, All doesn’t have much of a reaction. As she half-explains later, she’s worked too hard to get out of her old life that nothing’s going to suck her back in. (It’s implied that she grew up poor, but we don’t hear much about that.) She goes to talk to her brother Sam and makes him promise to stick around, but his eerie calmness isn’t exactly reassuring.  He just talks about the comic he’s been writing about a regular guy who’s sent flying blissfully when the asteroid hits. (Not to be confused with the comet hitting the earth in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s boom, although there’s definitely something ominous in the air in new plays these days.)

Shoresh Alaudini has a riveting intensity as the contemplative and guileless Sam, both in flashback scenes of family banter when Ally was still at home and in the compelling parables he tells as an elliptical way of processing his feelings. Dina Percia lets enough tenderness through as Ally, especially in the flashback scenes, to make her general guardedness and ignoring people when they’re talking to her less off-putting than it might be otherwise. (Ally even leaves the room for long stretches of her first couple of conversations, leaving the other person to just talk at her in her absence.) Damian Lanahan-Kalish makes a likeable geeky not-quite-boyfriend as Doug, who serves mostly as a sounding board (and friend with benefits) for Ally. Although a bit flat in the sad-mom monologues that make up much of her role, Tessa Konig-Martinez’s Emmy really comes to life in a very funny performance of a play Sam wrote.

Producing artistic director Tore Ingersoll-Thorp gives the play an energetic staging, even if that energy inevitably flags during long set changes. Kudos to set designer Ariane Owens and the production team for digging up particularly appropriate props, from the Star Wars sheets and volumes of Cerebus and Watchmen in Sam’s bedroom to the Red Dwarf VHS tapes littering Doug’s desk.

The script could stand to be fleshed out more. It’s sometimes distractingly noticeable when characters move from casual banter to poetic speeches, even if both sides of that dividing line are well-written. The mother mostly communicates in portentous letters and long messages, so we don’t get much sense of her as a character. It seems abrupt when Ally and Doug are suddenly both successful authors—especially in Ally’s case, because it feels like we’ve skipped over an important bit of her journey since the hard place in which we saw her.

But the Sam scenes are terrific, and not just because of Alaudini’s standout performance. The stories he tells are marvelous, both the ones he wrote and the things he observed.  If those haunting tales were the only things you took from the play, that in itself wouldn’t be half bad.

This World Is Good
Through August 28
Phoenix Theater
414 Mason St., 6th floor
San Francisco, CA

Show #83 of 2010, attended August 7.

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