The Floor is Lava, the new play from Washington Heights playwright and screenwriter Alex Riad, is part of the 2017 Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, a socially- and environmentally-conscious festival whose productions choose non-profit organizations to benefit. The Floor is Lava benefits Girls Who Code, an organization that is dedicated to closing the vast gender gap in the technology industry and that currently serves 40,000 girls nationwide.
The Floor is Lava (debuting, coincidentally, at the same time that the children's game for which it is named has become the most recent social media "challenge") takes place in the basement of Tom (Ian Poake), one of those seemingly ubiquitous young white males with a billion-dollar app startup at an incredibly young age and a Mark Zuckerberg-inspired fashion sense.Tom is having a blowout holiday party, which is full of tech industry types and hired models but also brings his old friends Matt (John DiMino), Kat (Molly Collier), and Sean (Vin Kridakorn) to his professionally-decorated Silicon Valley mansion. (The basement, with its small bar, ancient sofa, bean bag chairs, and Xbox One, is more reflective of Tom's own decorative habits, although the liquor selection reflects his new prosperity.) Sean is the true center of the play, which is symmetrically structured around one-on-one encounters between him and the other characters. He has returned to his hometown and his high-school friends in southern California from New York City and his high-powered advertising career at a moment of personal and professional crisis. As he reconnects with Matt, Kat, and Tom, his own struggles increasingly put him at odds with the trio, including causing something of a "speed bump" in Tom's golden road.
All four characters are gratifyingly nuanced and multifaceted. Initial impressions and stories rarely remain uncomplicated, and equally rarely is one character clearly and solely in the right. While Kat, for example, rebukes Matt for his habit of drunkenly hitting on her, Matt later observes how people like Kat, a driven Stanford graduate, not only wouldn't date someone like him (a pizza chef and part-time weed dealer who didn't go to college) but also regards him as, more or less literally, a lower class of human being. Tom rightly criticizes Sean's attitude to Tom's success, but he also only wants to hear the simple, pre-determined apology that he has already decided upon. This richness of character is enhanced by excellent performances, including the impressive, self-aware layers that John DiMino brings to Matt, especially in the latter portion of the play, and Molly Collier's balancing of the assertive and prickly and the loyal and caring sides of Kat, especially when Kat is conflicted about the latter. Ian Poake can be counted on as an impactful stage presence, and he makes an impact here as good-natured, hoodie-wearing Tom, still seeking validation from a friend he hasn't even seen in years. Vin Kridakorn pulls off not only Sean's sometimes wide emotional swings but also the vital trick of retaining a core of audience sympathy for Sean despite plenty of unappealingly (self-)destructive behavior.
The questions that the play asks through these characters and their relationships are not just for coders and PR flacks. It is interested in how we conceptualize and measure success, happiness, and friendship, and what we sacrifice for those conceptualizations. Through Kat, it also touches on the barriers that gender erects not just in the tech world but in male-female interactions more broadly. There is a stretch where The Floor is Lava seems to be headed in an atypically dark direction before it moves back onto a safer, more familiar narrative path. But it does avoid neatly resolving everything at the end, and its strong, layered characters are intriguing and enjoyable to watch -- this is one time when you should not avoid the lava. - Leah Richards and John Ziegler