By Joe Straw
My imagination runs amok with this title. The conjured possibilities are infinite. The play is about architects. Knowing a lot of architects - not that enticing. Erections - enticing. But, wait a minute; maybe the title denotes a sexual innuendo of sorts. The architects are men, they are sexual beings, and perhaps there will be an element of uplifting surprises.
Everyone knows the cost of erections. They are very costly in personal relationships. Cities are built and lives are destroyed all in one enigmatic fell swoop.
While people forge relationships and erect thoughts, ideas, and buildings, human beings try not to repeat a disgraceful episode. For those who replay those memories there is the lingering space in the brain that says, this is what happened and I will not let that happen again. In the end nobody wants to build edifices or relationships they will come to regret later.
The Blank Theatre presents the premiere of The Cost of The Erection written by Jon Marans and directed by Daniel Henning. Overall this is a superb show with very quirky characters and there are a lot of nice things in this comedy drama showcase.
The Blank Theatre is one of my favorite theaters in town. I get the concept. A black box with less than fifty seats and a very intimate setting. Very little in the way of set, walls, a table brought in now and then and plenty of curtains in this production. It’s all up to the actors to do their “stuff”.
Susu (Robin Riker) is a rich socialite and press agent who represent architects, with one exception, her husband Mark (Michael Knight). Today, they are celebrating the procurement of an apartment in New York City, which overlooks the Statue of Liberty. It is a beautiful empty space that needs a bathroom, decorating, and design. (Why we need architects to design and decorate is open for discussion.)
They are celebrating their new acquisition and they’ve invited another couple to join them in their celebration. Susu vilipends Mark and asks him not to speak at first. She wants to control the conversation. It is a foretaste of something inherently wrong in their relationship and a brief glimpse into her controlling nature.
She’s even got him to sign a prenuptial. True love? Ouch.
Rod (James Louis Wagner), another architect, and his wife, Brenda (Kal Bennett), join the casual party. Rod is younger, virile, and a tempting target. He is wearing jazzy graphic tennis shoes with a brown suit.
From first introductions, one gets the feeling that Brenda and Susu don’t know each other. This is far from the truth. They were close friends once but have not seen each other in four years because of problems from their past relationship.
Brenda and Rod expect to go out to dinner but wanting no distractions Susu has ordered in. Susu has set her sights on representing Rod. After a few moments of small talk, Susu takes Rod to one side of the apartment while Mark and Brenda move to the other side.
When the conversation turns from architects a more personal matter Rod says something inappropriate and is immediately scolded by Susu. This takes place while Susu and Rod are downstage left.
Meanwhile Brenda and Michael are upstage right, carrying on a conversation. Suddenly there is a problem and Brenda is overcome with emotion. She starts to cry.
At first, we do not know what has happened. But as things would have it, the positions of the characters get reversed, we go back in time, and we get to see the conversation we’ve missed.
Mark takes Brenda to a secluded part of the apartment and tells her that he can flirt with her but she cannot flirt back. His rule, not hers. But the conversation takes a dramatic turn when he speaks about his life with Susu, their pregnancy, and the loss of their son Ian who died two weeks after his birth.
Brenda is overcome with grief and later we learn she is not able to have a child with Rod.
Susu is furious that Mark is letting out the intimate details of their lives. But, Mark wants to try again to make a baby, something Susu does not want. It is too painful. Try as he might, condoms or not, Susu does not want to have sex with him no matter how he begs and pleads. There are some very funny moments of Mark trying everything in the book to get some with little results.
Later, Susu, not wanting Rod to get away, devises a plan to have him compete with Mark for the opportunity to design and decorate the apartment. As confident as she is with her husband’s ability, she feels he has lost his drive and she wants him to work harder, be clever, and excel in getting the right feel to the place.
Later, when Rod is presenting his designs of an open shower to the world to Susu, she finds the doctors report of his low sperm count. This is a slight distraction that Rod did not anticipate.
While Rod and Mark are working hard to win this contest, Brenda becomes infatuated with Mark and starts a relationship with him that doesn’t turn out according to her plan.
There are a lot of good things to be said about this production.
Robin Riker as Susu has a lot of very nice moments. Her slightly offbeat gold high heels with one stocking mid-calf are something I have not seen before and I found it alluring. Her wit is charming and turns on a moment’s notice. As the character she uses her wealth as a crutch of sorts but does not let the small things get to her. She plays each architect against one another, knowing full well which one she will choose. To her, life is a manipulative plot to get the person to work that much harder. Her execution is marvelous.
Michael E. Knight as Mark brings a lot of humor into the show. Knight is very likeable and offbeat. He is the normal everyman who pleads for sex just like the rest of us. His character has moments of brilliance but there are self doubts that he is, in some respects, inadequate. He can’t have things his way. Other people will not respond to his choosing’s. What he wants is not always what he will get but in the end he has a triumph of sorts.
James Louis Wagner as Rod has a very distinctive personality. As the character he is strong and egotistical, and no match for the woman with all of the money. He makes up for his low sperm count with exuberance for his job. But he seems to have doubts on his ability to create another human being and certainly more layers could have been added to this character. As the actor his objective is not strong enough to get him what he wants. For example, if he wants to become famous, his objective should be leading him in that direction and he should kiss whatever needs kissing in order to get it.
Kal Bennett as Brenda has a mysterious charm about her. Her character has an ulterior motive and it is one of sabotage simply because of her relationship with Susu. She is slightly sinister in that she wants to get back at Susu for creating havoc in her life, in the past and now in the present. Having a clearer idea of what she wants will add to an already fine performance.
Kristin Carey plays Susu, Stephanie Czajkowski plays Brenda, Steve Green plays Mark and David Tom play Rod all in understudy roles and did not perform this night.
Daniel Henning as the director does some very fine work in this production. His artful production is clever and has a few twists. There is a moment when we see the two men living in the space, and trying to create the idoneous grand design that will make or break their careers or, their marriage. This is a job well done by one of the finest directors working in Hollywood today.
Jon Marans the writer gives us a lot of insight into human nature, what they will do to earn the respect and admiration of those who control the purse strings. But missing are the fine detail of the characters lives, especially the lives of the architect. We only get a small glimpse of that life. Also, the relationships are problematic. While it is okay to point to an offstage life, there is a character (Brenda’s first husband) with a major role in this play and he has long since left the scene. It is slightly confusing. If the relationships were about the four of them, if Susu and Rod had had relationship years earlier, the conflict would have been that much greater. It also sets in motion Brenda’s objective to control that, which is uncontrollable. This gives us a meaner Brenda, a not-so-sympathetic Brenda, but a Brenda that is much more exciting to watch as the four of them play against each other.
There is a shower scene on stage with at least one actor wearing some kind of nude underwear. It is slightly visible due to the lighting and layers of curtains. Personally when I’m in the shower with someone, I don’t wear anything. Call me funny. I think modesty should be left at the stage door.
The fine producers are Matthew Graber, Daniel Henning and Noah Wyle. The Associate Producers are Terena Cardwell, Nathan Frizzell, Rachel Landis and Stephen Moffatt.
The Set/Lighting Design is by Cameron Zetty. The Costume Design is by Rachel Engstrom. Ken Werther did the Publicity. The Sound Design is by Warren Davis and the casting was by Scott David, Erica Silverman and Bob Lambert.