Shawn Nacol’s new play Rough Sketch takes place in a cartoon studio over Christmas break where two coworkers strive to complete segments for an overdue, over-budget film. Shocked to find the other had the same idea to forgo holiday celebrations and come into the office instead, the characters alternate between ignoring each other, guarding their assignments to prevent plagiarism, and reaching out in tender moments for companionship.
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
It’s Christmas Eve and the work studio at Doodle Ranch productions has officially closed its doors for the week-long break, including dimming the lights and turning off the heat. This doesn’t stop two of its employees however. One wants to get a head start on finishing the animated film Coffee Beanies, and the other just didn’t have anywhere to go for the holidays. Barbara (Tina Benko) enters the office with a bag full of necessary provisions for a working bender: bottled water, vitamins, instant hot soup, and meal replacement bars. Dex (Matthew Lawler), on the other hand, hears Barbara’s actions and crawls out from under his workspace where he has been asleep, a wasteland of empty soda cans and junk food wrappers.
Nacol’s script relies mostly on insider knowledge of the animation industry, such as computer graphics and technology, or the reel-editing machinery referred to only as “the tank”, which often loses audiences and creates long, anticlimactic scenes. What brings it back are the passionate performances of Lawler and Benko, whose frenetic chemistry of worrying about their personal lives one minute and arguing over Walt Disney’s rose-colored worldview the next, maintains the play’s overall momentum.
As Barbara, a tall, no-nonsense blonde, Benko has an air of confidence and authority with a monotone and factual line delivery, rivaling Julianne Moore in The Big Lebowski. As the token computer geek to Dex’s old-school approach of hand sketches, Nacol gives Barbara the brunt of the script’s technical jargon. Nacol has also made her the straight woman to play off Dex’s unobtrusive optimism. After hurried and rough sex Barbara retreats from the encounter (and Dex’s embrace) with detached perspective; she complains the endorphin release caused by orgasm will now make her sleepy and unable to work, and comments on hers and Dex’s pheromone reaction.
Lawler’s character, Dex, in turn is underdeveloped. As a pudgy, middle-aged divorcee who lives off the working vending machine onstage, he mainly putters around stage looking for distractions and ways to procrastinate. He spreads out on the floor and lies on his belly to doodle, for example, or plays with one of the many toys nearby. Despite such a simple character, Lawler brings everything he can to the table, from spontaneous, stuttering outrage when he can’t stand Barbara’s obnoxious behavior anymore to a vulnerable near-breakdown when discussing his relationship with his daughter.
Director Ian Morgan uses the tiny stage in a black box theater to implement the lack of privacy between Dex and Barbara, an all-too-relatable feeling for anyone familiar with cubicle life. Amith A. Chandrashaker’s lighting design also plays well off the black box framework, using the darkness and shadows to give a sense of time passing and midnight oil burning away through chronic fade-ins and fade-outs. Brightening up the stage is set designer Peter R. Feuchtwanger, whose whimsical and inventive approach litters it with action figures, stuffed animals, and posters of big goofy cartoons. A stunning and sobering behind-the-scenes portrayal of the cartoon industry with a heartfelt undercurrent that looks into the life of lonely workaholics and single dads, Rough Sketch makes the final cut.
Rough Sketch (Two hours; one 10-minute intermission)
59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street)
Tickets (www.ticketcentral.com): $18
Performances (through 1/31): Fri-Sat. @ 8:30pm; Sun. @ 3:30pm.
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.