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MadLab’s Warm, Vibrant Counter/Top

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford MadLab’s Warm, Vibrant Counter/TopCatherine Cryan as Miss Betty, l-r, with Cat McAlpine as Izzie in MadLab Theatre's production of Counter/Top by Kirin McCrory. Photo by Anna Leeper.
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MadLab’s Fall 2017 season dedicated to premieres bursts strong off the blocks with Kirin McCrory’s Counter/Top directed by Megan Mateer.

Counter/Top takes place in a diner you think has been right off the highway forever. Miss Betty (Catherine Cryan) presides over the scene, den mother, mediator and magistrate. Adrift Liza (Kayla Theis) hints she’s at the diner more often than not. Liza is pulled and repelled by her little town, clinging to and rebelling against whatever structure she finds. Brooks (a remarkable Ben Tucker) holds down a booth in his Vietnam Veterans hat, language shrunken to something outsiders have to strain to hear, syllables mushed together and smeared like silly putty.

Dustin Schwab as Gunner, l-r, with Ben Tucker as Brooks, and Kayla Theis as Liza in MadLab Theatre’s production of Counter/Top by Kirin McCrory. Photo by Anna Leeper.

Two combustible elements spark in this Norman Rockwell tableau on the day the play takes place. The first is two professors from the University of Virginia, Izzie (Cat McAlpine) and Khent (Chad Anderson), sent by a fellow teacher who came from the little town. The other is Liza’s unstable boyfriend, Gunner (Dustin Schwab).

Gunner flails at his own limitations of intelligence and possibility, Liza is the best thing he’s found and the thought he’s not good enough for her or anything else terrifies him. The heart of Counter/Top is Theis and Schwab tracing different approaches to young people looking down the barrel of diminished horizons. The audience sees ruts being formed, patterns calcifying, in these characters and the brave performances they bring to them, and it’s heartbreaking. Theis understands the charge her character gets winding people up. She focuses her sex appeal and frustrated intellect like a laser beam to cut through boredom with chaos. Schwab stumbles a couple of times, goes too broad, but largely hits; he never plays the most broadly drawn character as a joke. He knows where pride turns into cancer and where pain curdles into violence.

The interlopers aren’t drawn with the same precision as the locals. McAlpine’s restless energy belies an understanding that no one is so insufferable or condescending as the person who says over and over “I’m trying not to be condescending.” Her physical performance is irresistible, it’s hard not to watch her even as she’s on stage less than anyone else in the play. Anderson’s Khent has to carry too heavy a burden in the play. He seems to struggle with how much to float to the surface and to leave as subtext. His echo of Theis’s Liza, recognizing their similar intelligence, not wanting to admit how much of the break he got to leave that kind of town was luck, is fascinating. His violence, restrained for years, is more subtle. Where Gunner’s self-knowledge is his destructive, tragic quality, Khent’s is his denial. Anderson’s most vibrant moments come in the erotic charge of his and Theis’ cat and mouse games.

Kirin McCrory’s voice sings throughout. She understands how people talk and the ways we all try not to say what we’re desperate to say. She orchestrates the voices of these characters with harmonies and dissonance and she gives everything a propulsive rhythm without forgetting the static, removed quality of its place. The plotting and attempts to add more direct drama don’t work as well; there’s a sequence straight out of Bogosian’s Talk Radio that threw me out of the action and reminded me I was watching a play. But when she has faith in her characters, there’s magic here.

Counter/Top finds a perfect, sympathetic hand to lead it in Megan Mateer. Mateer’s direction – helped immeasurably by Kate Hawthorne’s stunning set – understands this place, its rituals, and the people in its orbit. She doesn’t treat the diner as claustrophobic and try too hard to paint the people inside as a family. She trusts the actors enough to find their path.

Counter/Top is a breath of fresh air from a voice I want more of. It leaves more questions than it answers but it mostly avoids stereotypes or cartoons for a look at class many of us try to avert our eyes when we walk past it.

Counter/Top runs through August 26 with performances at 8:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For tickets and more info, visit madlab.net/countertop

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