It's particularly tricky to write a review of roger&tom, Julien Schwab's quick and brilliant brainteaser of a play that is now in its regional premiere, thanks to a spirited staging by What If? Productions at Threshold Rep. In a trim and hypnotic 70 minutes, Schwab adroitly sets up and then repeatedly reneges on every contract he makes with the audience — and among its characters. Yes, roger&tom seriously toys with your mental faculties. But don't worry: You'll like it.
The playwright has quite ingeniously tied my hands. If I pull back the curtain to reveal too much of this ever-pivoting piece of theater, I would do you a disservice greater than the simple deployment of a spoiler. I'd erode the sleight of hand that the playwright has meticulously, metaphysically constructed. And you really don't want me to do that, because roger&tom is a mind trip best taken unawares and well worth the dizzying side effects.
While the work's unexpected turns may result in cognitive whiplash, the shape-shifting nature of the play emphatically succeeds. First, the play unpacks the whys and wherefores of modern theater, a topic increasingly relevant in light of Charleston's growing black-box scene. At the same time, it demonstrates just how tenuous any perceived hold on reality is — on stage or otherwise — since our realities are frequently built on the vital lies that we all choose to indulge.
Here's what I can tell you. When the play begins, a woman, Penny (Teralyn Tanner Reiter), is scurrying about in an all-white, box-strewn apartment in frantic search of something that she has secreted away. At first, I suspected she was an addict, rummaging in toilet bowls and such for something that only she could have placed there.
We soon discover that she is on the last legs of a dissolving marriage when her estranged husband Rich (Daniel Breuer) arrives to move his things out. Penny is about to depart for the premiere of her brother Tom's latest play and implores Rich to tamp down the news of their imminent divorce. Her reason is that she is going to the play with her other brother, Roger (Darryl LaPlante), a rough-hewn boozer in a long-standing rift with Tom. Their theater outing marks the brothers' first step toward reconciliation.
With Roger's entrance, the story starts going curiously awry. In a few cheeky twists on some well-trodden theatrical devices, the play undercuts the universally accepted default of drama, which is a willing suspension of disbelief. This includes messing with the invisible fourth wall that separates the actors from the audience. Scribes from Shakespeare to Mel Brooks have regularly broken this wall, with performers shattering the fine line between the imagined universe on stage by addressing the audience directly, abandoning any illusion of a plausible reality. In another nod to the Bard, Schwab also introduces in a play within the play — though subverts it in a way that is at once confounding and canny.
And, just when you think you've wrapped your head around a new lay of the land, it all tangles again in a dense perceptual Gordian knot that you will continue to try to pick apart long after the actors go home from the theater. But Schwab has the good sense to infuse the work with such sparkling comedic fun, that it's utter enjoyment to parse the seismic shifts and flips. As as a result, roger&tom creates a reality and then playfully pokes holes in it, having a laugh at the audience's gullibility in buying into this ersatz world of fake phone lines, dummy furniture, and missing walls.
On that note, director and set designer Kyle Barnette's contemporary white set smartly serves the action, just as his quick-footed staging serves the play. The production hums along with solid, engaging performances. As the narrative unfolds, you will realize just how masterful they are at their meta-characterizations. As Penny, Reiter gamely delivers a character who morphs in mind-boggling ways as the play progresses. She manages to set up information about her character that is yet to be revealed but is all too clear once it is. LaPlante convinces as the bruised, gruff Roger, and Breuer is inscrutable, also allowing for his character's surprises to emerge believably and elegantly.
Coming in just over an hour, the show is brief — and the run is, too, wrapping up this weekend. (If it does manage to slip through your hands, there is other work down the pike from the company shortly.) Catch it if you can. And then try to grasp it. It's challenging work, and the company gets a shout out for having the tenacity to mount it. It's also heartening to see this brand of contemporary theater getting staged locally. After all, to keep new audiences involved in the way theater can reveal our lives as the stage plays they are, fourth walls are meant to be broken.