The Pittsburgh New Works Festival kicked off this past weekend with a trio of original one acts: CCAC South Campus Theater’s Roosevelt’s Ghosts, The Summer Company’s The Pivot and The Theater Factory’s Doing Time. None of them are quite what you’d expect.
Roosevelt’s Ghosts, written by Aaron Scully and directed by New Works Festival Managing Director Lora Oxenreiter, is a reflective presidential fantasy with a quite literal title. We see a 25 year-old Theodore Roosevelt (Corwin Stoddard) speaking with Thomas (Mike McCarthy), an aide, about his wife Alice’s (Megan Grocutt) failing health. This is an important moment for the future 26th President: after losing his mother and wife in less than 12 hours, Roosevelt would go on to live a series of different lives that would culminate in two of the most consequential terms in office in American history, and this was the tragedy that propelled him to do so. “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough,” he once wrote.
I digress. The lights go out, and come on again. Mittie’s (Samantha A. Camp), the ghost of his mother, stands suddenly in the room. After a familiar ‘I must be out of my mind’ exchange and a few accusations about Theodore’s lifestyle from Alice, it becomes clear that we’re quite literally watching Roosevelt’s own personal A Christmas Carol.
As someone who studies American Presidents as a hobby, I had a good time watching CCAC’s production weave in and out of history. Corwin Stoddard, whose performance portrays both confidence and exhaustion, actually replicated Roosevelt’s odd, squinty smile once or twice, which in turn put a huge smile on my face. The fascination with Roosevelt is obvious in Scully’s script, and you get a sense of the entire emotional arc of his young adulthood in just over thirty minutes, which is impressive.
However, despite the fact that I can’t say I’ve seen this exact riff on Charles Dickens’ perennial classic, the pace and dialogue are too familiar for the play to make a stamp of its own on this oft-retold story. I couldn’t help but feel that any figure in history could supplant Roosevelt and the experience of the play would be more or less the same. If the history is unfamiliar to the audience, plot points certainly won’t be.
Next up is The Summer Company’s smart and succinct The Pivot, written by Seth Freeman and directed by Justin Sines. A man named Walter (Brett Sullivan Santry) waits alone in an office for job applicants to enter. Two women named Cindy, identical but for the color of their skin, take their seats.
We watch the interviews occur simultaneously. The women share lines and have the same resume. For the first woman (Krista Graham), who is white, the interview is cordial, even complimentary. Walter silently pivots (aha!) his chair to the second woman (Meleana Felton), who is black, and the interview seems colder somehow. The longer we watch, the more the divide Walter has created for the women becomes apparent.
The Pivot couldn’t have been more than six or seven minutes, but like any good short work, it has a certain intellectual catchiness to it. What I liked best about it was the play’s focus on the actual act of pivoting. When Walter moves, his face becomes stone cold, and the stage falls silent. He really takes his time getting there, too, and it creates an unsettling atmosphere to sit in.
Lastly we have The Theater Factory’s Doing Time, written by Mary Poindexter McLaughlin and directed by Scott P. Calhoon. This was easily the conversation starter of the afternoon. The play follows an old man (Tom Mirth) and a young man (Steve Gottschalk) who represent a different philosophical approach to life, each brought about by what appears to be a generational gap.
The play begins in a nearly vacant space, equipped only with a couple chairs, a table, and a window. Mirth’s Older Man is in a tattered suit and seems to have lost his shoes. He has a flute and plays it as much as humanly possible – importantly, he only actually knows a single six or seven-second riff. For a while, we’re just sitting with this man.
Without warning, the younger man, whose outfit is pristine, explodes into the room and spills a small novel’s worth of papers onto the floor. He reveals that they’re the pages of his autobiography, which he must write perpetually, or he will die. The play then becomes a physical comedy, as the slightest sound from the older man causes the younger man to spiral into a fit.
I really liked Doing Time visually. There’s a great contrast between Mirth’s older man and Gottschalk’s younger man. Mirth’s movement is fluid and unhurried. He’s always contorting himself into odd, almost ape-like positions (think Andy Serkis in front of a green screen) as he navigates the stage, and he’s a lot of fun to watch. Meanwhile, Gottschalk is rigid efficiency personified.
Suffice to say, the older man has a few things to teach the younger man about smelling the roses. I won’t be too descriptive in terms of plot here, but the older man is prepared to sacrifice a lot for the younger man’s addiction to chronicling himself, which gives him a revelation. There’s a clear analogy for social media consumption here, and like many works pleading with millennials to stop it with the cell phones already, I think its heart is in the right place but its message isn’t exactly comprehensive. Like any issue worth discussing, social media overconsumption as a problem deserves a solution more complicated than “have you tried just not doing it?”
I won’t pigeonhole McLaughlin’s work any further, because I think its entirely possible to walk out of this with wholly different conclusions. This is a memorable experience, warts and all, and is the kind of self-contained, imaginative play one would hope to find at the New Works Festival. It’s unique and worth engaging with.
If I’m to judge The New Works Festival based on its ability to show me what I haven’t seen before, it’s off to a good start. I’m looking forward to what’s coming up next.
Program A runs at Carnegie Stage through September 9. For tickets and more information, click here.
*A previous version of this review had Samantha A. Camp and Megan Grocutt’s character’s mislabeled.