Franklin Stein is a horror story told in the tradition of Theater of the Absurd as practiced by Eugene Ionesco, the early work of Edward Albee, the plays of Samuel Beckett, and other international playwrights commencing in the late 1950s. Such plays are meditations on the absurdity of human existence, in which conventions of plot and characterization are distorted to convey, as one dictionary defined it, "the irrationally of existence and the isolation of humanity." Playwright C.J. Thom, with an exceptionally fine cast and artistic team, succeeds in presenting a powerful evening of theater which asks the question: What does it take to have heart against the backdrop of the pernicious corporatization of human life and interaction?
A corporate flunky named Franklin Stein meets with Dr. Sam, a medical specialist to whom he’s been referred by his regular physician. Dr. Sam soberly informs Stein that he lacks a heartbeat and is, in actuality, dead. Stein objects, declaring that he moves about and generally feels fine, save for his stiff neck. What unfolds is a series of events which escalate in horror as Stein’s condition worsens, with Dr. Sam, during Stein’s subsequent visits, offering remedies that are increasingly demanding and bizarre. Compounding Stein’s situation is Stein’s wife, always in a while silk bathrobe, white slip, and house slippers, who is nearly oblivious of his condition. Stein’s co-worker, Buddy whose self-centeredness renders him clueless, recommends golf as the cure-all for Stein’s woes. Stein then encounters Hobo Bob, an abrasive and cantankerous street person, who claims that he and Stein are alike: dead to the world. Our protagonist even consults a voodoo practitioner who, through the application of a preposterously raucous ritual, claims to have cured Stein -- but Stein fires back that he is not cured, and so he cycles back to Dr. Sam, whose suggestions for a cure take a murderous turn.
As with any absurdist play, just outlining the plot cannot convey the mood and flavor of the drama. Meaning is delivered indirectly, so the audience must work with what is unfolding on stage to discern the playwright’s intent and message. In Franklin Stein, the dialogue is completely naturalistic, the characterizations totally sincere, and moments of what could be intentional joking are scant and decidedly absurd. Mr. Thom’s skill as a playwright is abundantly apparent in that he has created the universe of his play as a puzzle, the solving of which -- through all the twists and turns of the action -- kept me closely engaged to the last closing moment.
Anton Koval gives a tour-de-force performance as Franklin Stein, a man desperately trying to make sense of his strange condition while frustrated in an irrational and incomprehensible situation. The physical athletics required of Mr. Koval as he portrays a man at various stages of loosing control of his movements while undergoing bodily decomposition, must be tantamount to several intense and uninterrupted hours of dancing the tango. A sympathetic and powerful (and relentlessly kinetic) performance such as Mr. Koval's, as the Stein character attempts to remedy his dire condition, is not to be missed. Larry Greenbush as Dr. Sam gives a fine performance as the sober physician who slowly morphs into a lugubriously demented doctor, quietly and later aggressively descending into evil with his remedies and 'wise' counsel.
Stein’s wife Hope, who never gets out of her just-got-up-from-sleep attire, is portrayed by Jennie West. If this were a conventional comedy, her performance would be considered skillfully whimsical, but in the world of this play, what her general blindness to her husband’s plight conveys is horrific. It takes a great deal of rousing to have this character get excited or bothered, but when she does, Ms. West is up to the task, with her hysteria contributing to the mounting weirdness as Stein contemplates the most drastic measures that Dr. Sam suggests would cure him.
Buddy, Stein’s co-worker, is played by Brett Epstein. He relentlessly maintains a non-stop, upbeat, chatterbox, golf-obsessed persona. With appropriately maddening consistency, he serves this up with the breezy skill of many a famed character actor from classic movie comedies.
Xavier Reminick, as Hobo Bob, the filthy and bedraggled street person, gives such an authentic and intensely angry performance that I wanted to bolt for the nearest exit. Mr. Reminick replicates, with all the ghastly and repulsive traits, the kind of person, that when encountered on a subway train, prompts an entire car full of riders to head to the next car (or get off the train completely for a breather). Mr. Reminick also does a nice turn doubling as the voodoo doctor’s zombie assistant: one of the few times the playwright confers a measure of cuteness on a character (and effectively so).
Emmanuel Elpenord is the Voodoo Master who is lord over his zombie assistant. He deals haughtily with Stein and then performs an outlandish curative ritual in a style right out of a B picture zombie film, with his over-to-top air of authority and pomposity. His dance of 'rejoicing' at the conclusion of the ritual was one of the many highlights of the evening. Jeff Wong’s scene-setting projections are absolutely wonderful, a marvel really. This is an artist of high caliber, and his projections meld beautifully with David Hinkle’s set design and Marion Hurt's moody and evocative lighting. Adding to and compounding the varying moods of each scene are the original music composed by Vern Woodhead and the sound design by both Mr. Woodhead and Dave Buchwald.
Evan Michael Glenn's costuming contributes greatly to the tone of the undulating goings-on. Hobo Bob's rags could not be more disgustingly authentic. Hope Stein's attire inventively suggests a cross between the Bride of Frankenstein and the daughters of Count Dracula. John Harlacher's extraordinary direction keeps the absurd, horrific, and poignant action flowing with a sure hand. To make an absurdist play work, there's a fundamental rule: All the action, no matter how strange, must be 'played straight' -- and Mr. Harlacher keeps it all straight and all effective.
Franklin Stein: A Modern Tale of Corporate Horror is not an “easy” evening of theater, but it is a high-amperage rewarding one for those who wonder if they are maintaining their heart through the absurdity of contemporary life. If you are the kind of person who might consider, from time to time, that you’ve (just possibly) spent too much of your life waiting for things to “turn out,” this play may prompt you to live with a bit more heart. - Jay Reisberg
Photo credit: Daniel Robinson
Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, and bon vivant at large.