Review: Blue Window @ CBT's Lab Theatre

At the outset, let me say that from a directorial, design, and especially performance standpoint, there are many solid choices being made in Clarence Brown's current production of Craig LucasBlue Window that I am very eager to talk about. But, unfortunately first, I have to say that as an audience member I did not enjoy this play.

As a theatre artist speaking about it from a technical standpoint, I understand why it's interesting: the well orchestrated auditory collage of overlapping dialogues across disparate simultaneous scenes is composed in such a way as to provide a kind of super-context for the audience while constantly uprooting our attention, thereby diminishing the importance of each individual's narrative, and deepening the sense of isolation between characters in order to draw attention to the terrible and banal fact that each of us is doomed to live an existence that is utterly hermetic and incapable of any meaningful understanding or connection with others.

Now, if you're kinda' mad at me for writing that last sentence because it makes me sound like I'm trying really hard to teach you a lesson, and make sure you know how super smart I am, then you also understand how the bulk of the text in Blue Window feels when you encounter it.

When this play premiered in 1984 (ten years before any member of the current cast was born) perhaps it qualified as cutting edge work, and maybe I would have thought very differently about it then. As it is though, in the last thirty years the most effective aspects of Craig Lucas' experimentation with structure have long since been incorporated into the medium at large. So, instead of feeling like a fresh and daring structural experiment, this production comes off more like a demonstration of form; a playwriting exercise.

I understand that like any theatre company CBT must consider the box office returns on all of its shows, and what's more, it has an obligation to pick plays that offer valuable experience for the students in its training program. But, if you're going to stage something experimental why needlessly repeat an old experiment when you might have the opportunity to discover something new and truly exciting by staging a more relevant work? To pick the most low hanging fruit from this production as an example: in 2017 the premise of erudite apartment-dwelling New York City thirty-somethings gathering to talk loudly over each other about art, philosophy, and the nature of the mind, is a situation so well trodden by playwrights that it practically qualifies as its own genre. Yet this is exactly the setting, situation, and characters that Blue Window presents us with.  

So, enough of all of that. I didn't like the script, and I want to encourage CBT to flex its considerable theatrical muscle by being braver in its play selection.

But, now let's talk about the things that did work in this production, of which there are plenty. 

Perhaps most importantly, even though the construction of the plot is lazy at best, this script itself is not morbid, it moves quickly, and at times is actually pretty funny.  Especially during the first half as the characters prepare for the evening and while they are attending the party itself, there are quite a few moments of honest laugh out loud humor.   

Pacing in this play is everything. Crucially, director Terry Silver-Alford understands what the script's highly stylized construction requires from his cast, and he is very successful in eliciting it. There are moments where the composition of the voices is so clearly arranged in relationship and tempo that I could imagine the actors scribbling musical terms like affrettando or subito into the margins of their scripts during rehearsals. The multiple overlapping scenes and conversations are perfectly conducted, and never allowed to deflate or become mired in rhythm-destroying theatrical pauses. Interestingly, this actually achieves its greatest effect when, in the third and final scene the frenetic energy has died and the writing becomes more naturalistic, confronting us with the awkward inelegant pace of everyday language as the characters thrash about trying to convey their experiences to one another. These marked shifts are not easily executed, and Silver-Alford is to be commended for accomplishing them with aplomb.

As the host of the evening's dinner party, Emily Helton (Libby) displays a deft sense of situational humor and timing. And just when you are prepared say you've seen all that her portrayal of the role can offer she unleashes an intense torrent of raw and powerful emotion that for me constituted the most affecting portion of the evening.

As the freewheeling Greaver, Owen Squire Smith establishes himself as the play's funnyman from the outset, and will likely be thought of by many as the most likeable character of the piece. But even more than his comedic skill, I was infatuated with the small work that he was doing during the final scene where he has very few lines but remains so deeply focused and in the moment that I was sometimes drawn to watching him perform such banal stage business as fidgeting with a phone cord.

Meg Sutherland (Alice) plays opposite Lauren Winder (Boo) and the pair do a terrific job realizing the subtle changes and shifting dynamics of a couple whose relationship is being tested, not by any one single event, but rather by boring old everyday life. Both ladies are mindful not to overplay the tensions, allowing the gathering unrest to manifest naturally in little ways that are very interesting to watch as they unfold throughout  the night. 

Curtis Bower is tasked with the unenviable job of portraying Tom, a studio musician who often serves as a mouthpiece for playwright Craig Lucas to talk about the difficulties of the creative process and the beauty of unconventional artistic structures through thinly veiled diatribes about experimental jazz. In spite of this, I enjoyed watching Tom watch and listen to the other characters, as Bower's reactions reveal the workings of a much fuller inner life than the lines he has been given.   

Gracie Belt (Emily) and Luke Atchley (Norbert) round out this talented ensemble. While neither is given very much in the way of text, both make the very most of it. Atchley's portrayal of kindhearted Norbert could easily have fallen into campy stereotype, but he exhibits solid control, allowing scenes to take their natural course and following the emotional truth of the moment where it leads. As Emily, Belt has very little to say, and I risk ruining the impact of her pivotal moment by going into details, but suffice to say that I was surprised at first - and honestly a little thrown off - but in hindsight I've found it to be one of the evening's most memorable and effective sequences. 

The scenic design is truthful to the era and necessarily sparse in order to accommodate multiple simultaneous locations. Becca Johnson does a fine job of providing us with small spaces that still hint at the characters who inhabit them. The two large movable book cases that dominate the stage combine with Jordan Vera's excellent application of diffuse blue light to create a horizonless void, turning the entire area upstage of the proscenium into a literal and figurative blue window whose effect I found both beautiful and of course fitting. Finally, Amber Williams costume designs are period accurate and effective, though the piece doesn't provide her with much creative latitude.

Ultimately here is the most important thing I took away from Blue Window: UT's Theatre Department is producing young actors and designers of exceptional subtlety and skill. Full stop. So, if you are excited to see a play featuring subtle and skillful stagecraft where plot and character take a backseat to style and technique then look no further. If however you prefer either more traditional dramatic fare or (in the other direction) more experimental and avaunt guard work, then this may not be the evening of live theatre you are looking for.

Blue Window runs through November 12 at the CBT Lab Theatre. You can find tickets here.

- JP Schuffman is the Managing Artistic Director of the Knoxville Theatre Club, a local theatre critic, playwright, and teacher.