I am a Nerd ya’ll. Big book-reading dork. So when I saw that a novel was being adapted into a stage play for Baltimore, the first thing I did was download that book to my nook and feverishly jump in. I went to see Concrete Island (a novel by J. D. Ballard) adapted into a stage play by Nick Vyssotsky at the Mercury Theater Friday night. My date for the evening had not previously read the book, so I picked his brain about the production and am hoping to offer two different perspectives here- those for theater patrons alone, and those who are familiar with the text. I will try to be clear when I deviate from one realm to the next- wish me luck.
The book Concrete Island is the middle in a trilogy. Some of you are familiar with the first book in the series, Crash, because of its movie adaptation from 1996 with Holly Hunter and Rosanna Arquette. Concrete Island, in a nutshell, is about a man Robert Land who crashes his Jaguar one night. He lands in a small overgrown patch of concrete and waste between several overpasses, and down a steep embankment. He is injured from the wreck and realizes that he cannot get up to the freeway to summon help. He has some wine in his trunk, and finds discarded highway food scraps that sustain him temporarily. He tries to gain help, but all efforts are futile. Eventually he realizes the “island” is not uninhabited, and runs into the two others who call it home(ish). A young woman (Jane) who nurses him back to health, smokes too much weed, and works in a “club” but also prostitutes herself; and a former boxer (Peter) who seems addled in the mind, but kind and well-meaning, just a bit deranged. They try to help him, but have no desire to see him leave. It has been described as a mash up of Robinson Crusoe and Lord of the Flies, but the genre of “urban science fiction” is a better fit.
The play is carried by a powerful performance by Dave Iden as Robert Land (in the book his name is Maitland). His physical dynamics as he struggles to gain composure, as he tries to dominate these other two beings, summon help, survive, and devise a way out of here are written all over his face. His guttural sounds for the first few minutes of the play (as the car wrecks) are almost too much to bear and had my friend looking at me for assistance (remember, he didn’t read the book). It is animalistic and basic and reminds us that no matter where we are headed or what tomorrow brings, we can all be brought back to a basic function. But too much literary analysis for here, that’s for later. The other two characters are less enthusiastic. Madison Coan as Jane is flat. She might be playing the prostitute portion of the detachment to men, but she is (according the novel) supposed to care for him in some way. She seems devoid of compassion or care, and rather stand offish as an actress. Aaron Estes as the lovable homeless man is perfect in his minor scenes of utter unbelievability- he gets urinated on, used, abused, and discarded by both Jane and Robert along with others from his past.
The set was simple (it is a limited space at Mercury- and in dire need of some HEAT), the car was cute and well thought out with its moveable frame and write on, wipe off siding. I don’t know how much it resembled a jaguar- but if you haven’t read the book you have no expectations. The mess, the discarded trash, balcony, and side fencing all work to enclose Robert correctly and make sure that his connections with civilization are thoroughly disconnected. It may as well be a tropical island as opposed to a traffic island. The only issue is that we sat on the left side wall, and when Robert is in Jane’s bed, we could not see him from the shoulders up. Especially because the car had ben moved into our sight line. I don’t think we missed much- but we strained to try and see anyway, much to the dismay of the patrons behind us.
The lighting and sound effects were simple. Road noise helps instead of hindering this particular production- although street noise bleeds in and is sometimes rather distracting. I would have liked maybe a constant low rumble of traffic- the noise would come up sometimes to remind me of our location and it felt loud and abrupt instead of underscoring the play.
Nick Vyssotsky’s adaptation is commendable- anyone who can take a novel and make it into a play gets a thumbs up from this gal- but it leaves some gaping holes in the exposition that I don’t feel the average theater goer would be aware of. Robert is an architect- a symbolic occupation being he is trapped inside an urban mega-man-made structure and can’t find a way out. The first half of the 150-page novel is Robert alone. His struggles are jumbled but the back story of his character seals the second half of the novel, when he interacts with the island’s vagrants. In this production, the two others join him early on. We find out, per the book, that he is having an affair and that the mistress and wife are fully aware of each other. This explains why no one signals for help when he goes missing- they both naturally assume he is with the other. His work also involves travelling extensively and he has all but trained his staff not to question his whereabouts, example two of how a prominent business man can just go “missing.” My biggest complaint about this information is that it wasn’t conveyed during the staged show. Once I explained these things to my friend over a pint at the local watering hole, he was much more involved and suddenly had more interest and questions in the production.
There are character names shifts as well- Robert Maitland becomes Robert land (get it- island, land…) and the homeless man is a former acrobat (via the novel), boxer in his version, whose name has been changed from Proctor to Peter. I tried to grasp why and felt a sense of uneasiness. Without giving away too many spoilers, I had to assume a biblical context as a default. But I like the manufacturing giant (Proctor) name better than a basic bible inspired name.
I will say that in my research- the most accolades go to the third book in the trilogy- High Rise which is supposed to be adapted into a movie in the future. Guess what I already downloaded and am about to start reading? You guessed it! If you too are a nerd, find me at a local function and ask me what I thought- I read about a book a week and get way too excited talking about good things to read.
All in all, it was ambitious and different; experimental and surreal; and engaging while remaining a bit obtuse. Was it perfect? No. Was the script a bit lackluster? I assume so, I can only go with my knowledge of the novel and what I saw. Was it worth seeing- maybe. Are you into odd theater? Do you like a challenge? Do you want to support the up and coming new wave of independent theater? Then yes- although beers before are suggested.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? It is an interesting and oddly stirring evening of theater with quirks and questions abound. Fans of the Ballard novel will find it reassuring and majorly deviant from the base story- while those unfamiliar with be drawn into the world without question. It isn’t perfect, but it is though-provoking and worth a glance- I say what do you have to lose? (I)
Running time one hour, no intermission. Running through Feb 17th.