Otherwise Engaged By Simon Gray BACK STAGE WEST – December 2, 1999

Otherwise Engaged
By Simon Gray

BACK STAGE WEST – December 2, 1999
at the Pacific Resident Theatre. Reviewed by Paul Birchall

In director Michael Rothhaar’s subtly nuanced production of Simon Gray’s darkly comic drama, all London publisher Wimon (Kevin Quinn) wants to do is spend the day listening to his new recording of Wagner’s Parsifal. Fat chance. Instead, he is beset by odious visitors, all of whom take Simon further and further away from the solitude he seeks and bring him to heartbreak, emotional isolation and tragedy.

Simon’s oafish schoolteacher brother, Stephen (Stuart W. Howard) wants sympathy because he fears he has lost an important promotion, while journalist/cricit friend Jeff (Stephen Hoye) a vile racist boor, drops by to complain about the affair he’s having with his now remarried ex-wife. Just when Simon gets these people’s issues resolved, in comes Jeff’s ambitious girlfriend (Andi Carnick) who tried to seduce Simon to get her book published. She’s followed by an old school friend who suspects Simon of a misdeed with his fiance.

Ultimately, we find ourselves thinking that this is the sort of play which could never be set in America: We keep expecting Simon to tell the endless procession of guests to go away, but he’s hamstrung by an intensely British quality of polite, passive acceptance. Still, what is powerful about the play is how artfully Gray communicates the banality of Simon’s shallow interest in his friends’ welfare – its clear he doesn’t care about anyone else at all but is mouthing platitudes to get them out of his house, even when the things he’s being told are horrifying.

Rothhaar’s staging shrewdly emphasis personality and motivational underpinnings over the vagaries of blocking. Although the inhabitants of Gray’s elegant play are a steadfastly unpleasant collection of self-absorbed monsters dripping with ego and appetite – especially ertswhile protagonist Simon, whose false sincerity masks a terrifyingly cold and monstrously detached personality – this is a powerfully moral drama about emotional isolation and the nature of denial.

The ensemble work crackles with overt civility and internal malice with Quinn’s performance being especially tight and cool. The more we learn about the seemingly civilized, educated and restrained Simon, the more we realize how hollow his life is – and how much he has repressed his rage and dispair. Also compelling are Howard’s weaselly Stephen, Carnick’s loathsomely sleazy Davina and Stacie Chaiken as Simon’s desperate wife.

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