Review: ‘Separate Rooms’ at 4615 Theatre

A 'Big Chill'–style tribute to the turning point of turning 30.

“Will I be missed?,” the young man wonders aloud as he surveys the thirtysomethings who have gathered in his Manhattan apartment for a party after his funeral. “Did it matter that I was here?” They do not hear him; only we can. “What did I leave behind?”

The character is called Him in the program, and his afterlife contemplations haunt this sprawling, often raucous and wacky new comedy by Joe Calarco. A Big Chill–style tribute to the turning point of turning 30, Separate Rooms is the first world premiere to be staged by the gutsy young 4615 Theatre, and as directed with verve by Founding Artistic Director Jordan Friend, it hits a generational nerve as it tickles to death.

Alex Mills as Him in ‘Separate Rooms.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell.

Alex Mills as Him appears first, addressing the audience with an infectious enthusiasm that seems very much alive though he just died in a car crash. Now and then we will hear from Him again, but for long stretches of the play, he is a silent witness to all the other characters’ delightfully messy and amusing goings-on. He ambles through scenes like an invisible interloper, listening and subtly reacting but lacking Mills’s otherwise magnetic presence. The play is built that way, which I guess is okay, but it’s odd to have the central character intermittently recede like a cipher.

Some of those who have come to mourn Him are chums from Cornell, friends of friends, a few strangers, and each is a bundle of comical quirks. Bob (Jacob Yeh) and Anna (Jen Rabbit Ring) are a high-strung married couple whose marriage is on the ropes: Bob has cotton wads up his nose to stop a nosebleed that was caused by a fall but that Anna wishes had resulted from her clocking him.

Jacob Yeh as Bob and Jen Rabbit Ring as Anna in ‘Separate Rooms.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell.

Melissa (Alani Kravitz), also high-strung, is desperate for a cigarette and goes on a nutty quest to find one (“Death happens,” she quips. “It doesn’t mean we have to stop smoking”). Eventually, all the joking about smoking pays off with some jaw-dropping gags involving Him’s ashes, which his sister Anna carries around in an urn. Frank (Vince Eisenson), also high-strung, keeps expounding about geopolitics (“This country is drenched in blood”), though no one cares what he has to say except when he admits he cheats on his wife. Janie (Jenna Berk), also high-strung, is a frantic late arrival. She missed the funeral, but she’s just in time for the mayhem.

There’s an enigmatic character the program calls The Guest. Nobody knows who she is and she doesn’t either. She is not only high-strung; she is high as a kite, and Melissa Carter plays her to the hilarious and hair-raising hilt.

Josh (Stephen Russell Murray) was Him’s boyfriend. He too is high-strung, inveterately anxious and agitated, and he hooks up with Simon, a downstairs neighbor (Reginald Richard), who drops in and wastes no time getting into Josh’s pants. (This among other things we see Him observe somewhat impassively.) Simon isn’t so much high-strung as perpetually horny. He’s got a show-stopping speech about barbeque-flavored Pringles and another about cumming for the first time when he was twelve and in church. The script’s references range widely.

Jenna Berk as Janie, Alex Mills as Him, and Stephen Russell Murray as Josh in ‘Separate Rooms.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell.

Though the play has elements of frenzied farce, it’s actually much more layered and literate than that. Separate Rooms moves back and forth in time and takes place in multiple rooms (hence the title). There are flashback and contemporaneous confrontations. And as we glean from the many monologues, each of the characters has an engrossing story to tell. These singular speeches are wonderfully written and cumulatively make Separate Rooms enormously satisfying. They’re sometimes drop-dead funny, often movingly lyrical, and always flooded with feelings, which the actors deliver luminously.

Typically a speech will begin with an off-beat topic then draw us into a narrative that becomes utterly immersive. At times this riveting pastiche of monologues can seem like separate playlets. At times we may puzzle over how or whether they will all come together, and when and where we ever are. But that disorientation is precisely what keeps us on tenterhooks, expecting the unexpected, in a nonstop state of surprise.

Among those surprises are some sweet scenes late in the play flashing back to Him’s and Josh’s first date and the beginning of what was their shared life. Besides being charming (at one point they dash out of an offstage shower with nothing on but towels), these scenes are especially welcome because they finally integrate Him into the action of his own life.

To suggest the play’s several different and sometimes cinematically simultaneous locations, Scenic Designer Jennifer Hiyama has devised movable fragments of walls, windows, and doors, which the actors wheel about. On opening night, the units seemed a cumbersome challenge for the cast to maneuver and operate smoothly. The set pieces also made the  playing area seem cramped, and called attention to themselves more than they served the storytelling. With hope this distraction can be diminished during the run.

[Read David Siegel’s interview with the director and design team of Separate Rooms.]

Lighting Designer Katie McCreary has taken advantage of the small space’s low ceiling to mount LED lights that often spill into the audience’s eyes, giving an interestingly surreal bluish backlight to the time-shifting we see on stage. Costume Designer Jeannette Christensen has credibly captured the characters’ idiosyncrasies, and Intimacy Director Jonathan Ezra Rubin has handily coached the kissing and making out, of which there is pleasantly a lot.

Despite its few rough edges, Joe Calarco’s Separate Rooms at 4615 Theatre is a play rich with humor and rife with emotional truths about life and death and adulting. “Live on stage your life stage” could be its teaser if you’re in your twenties or thirties. And if with luck you’ve survived them, you are likely to have a curiously gratifying time.

Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.

The cast of ‘Separate Rooms’: Melissa Carter as The Guest, Vince Eisenson as Frank, Alani Kravitz as Melissa, Stephen Russell Murray as Josh, Alex Mills as Him, Jen Rabbit Ring as Anna, Jacob Yeh as Bob, Jenna Berk as Janie, and Reginald Richard as Simon.

Separate Rooms plays through March 17, 2019, at 4615 Theatre Company, performing at The Highwood Theatre – 914 Silver Spring Avenue, Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 928-2738, or purchase them online.

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John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.


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