Baryshnikov Arts Center
Jan 23, 2018
Slot machines make noise. Emit light. They can also wreck lives on a slower simmer than opiates, speed, or cards. The cheap trance they offer is both throwback and harbinger.
In Cold Enough To Levitate, Christina Masciotti—herself both American language wrangler in a long humanist tradition and forward-looking manipulator of material elements towards a naturalism of reverberation—brings her sniper-like attention to the effects of this cheap trance on Frankie, a war veteran, cop, and accused embezzler, as a window onto a vast societal ping pong of malady and self-medication.
At the beginning of her BAC residency process, Masciotti and her director Mallory Catlett, along with their light and sound designers, were experimenting with deconstructing the slot machine’s functions as a means of washing play and audience in its staccato rhythms as mood stabilizer and saboteur. By the time I visited the rehearsal room in mid November, a few days before their showings, her focus had shifted to Frankie—constructing in the sharpest of detail the human being in front of the machine, the man at the center of the play.
Walking into the rehearsal room mid-scene, I found Frankie facing a machine that would be made manifest in light and sound, talking to himself, through himself, his lawyer George behind him, shuttling between George’s questions and the machine’s lull.
One quick, quiet beat after the scene breaks Masciotti looks to the actor playing Frankie, and says simply “guiltish.” He nods, understanding. I am confused.
They work through a few scenes again. “I’d feel less guiltyish if it didn’t affect them so much,” Frankie says of his parents in response to a question from George. Suddenly I understand too. The actor had accidentally changed Masciotti’s phrasing with a “y” that belonged to the word in the wider world, but not in the vocabulary of the man who had presented himself in her mind as protagonist.
Again the scene breaks. A beat. Again Masciotti says “guiltish.” The actor takes a moment, nods. The next time through he gets it right.
What differentiates Masciotti from the majority of language-attuned American playwrights is that fundamentalist precision, underpinned by an unabashed attentiveness to particularity of place; what differentiates her from almost every playwright attentive to particularity of place is that she is most often focused on places (in this case her native Reading, Pennsylvania) that don’t frequently command art’s attention; what differentiates her from the few living playwrights sharing both of these attentions is that her attention to individuality is equally sharp. She writes people, not functions in plot, but discreet individual human beings shaped not only by the sounds of place, but by their own idiosyncratic circumstances, genetics, fascinations, and tics. Thick, textured American people who do boring, shitty, regular things. Masciotti’s characters don’t live in Brooklyn or Portland, or any of the vaguely interchangeable revitalized industrial districts or exurban clumps of capital threaded between them.
Roughly a century ago, in 1921, Luigi Pirandello had this audacious formalist idea to put six characters in search of an author onstage, to make the major conceit of an evening at the theater the suggestion that the characters themselves had lives, that all they really needed was a medium, a channeling ringmaster with an eye towards coherence to arrange them into circumstance. Pirandello raised the curtain on the playwright’s mind; in so doing he also exposed the confessional booth in which character and playwright had been communing secretly at least since Ibsen and Chekhov began attempting to put life as they saw it on stage.
Playwrights have been figuring out how to negotiate the demands of their characters and the awareness of their audiences ever since. In contemporary American theater, from the most radical formal experimentation to the tightest Broadway cause and effect dramas, we are for the most part awash in authors ignoring characters. For some, it is a point of pride; for others there is simply little recognition that characters are people too.
And then we have Christina Masciotti.
When I see her work I have the sense that she waits with ceaseless patience in bus stations and doctor’s offices and anterooms of bureaucracy for anyone with a sharp, particular voice, a small story not being told, a pay grade lower than the typical theatergoer, and too many mounting concerns to recognize their place in a larger system.
The way Frankie drew her back from sound and light is not surprising. It separates Masciotti as much from Pirandello as from her peers. Without full people along for the ride, audience has little to take away from formalist adventure. If the particular is the pathway to the universal, Christina Masciotti is the medium of which the contemporary American character is most in need.
Ben Gassman is a playwright from Queens. Sam's Tea Shack, a piece he co-created with Sam Soghor and Meghan Finn, was presented this past fall by The Tank in NYC and by Barker Room Rep in Los Angeles. Gassman, along with director Brandon Woolf, is a 2018 Artist-In-Residence at the Performance Project of University Settlement, where they will be launching their new collaborative endeavor, Culinary Theater. bengassman.com.