Rec Room Arts’s regional premiere of Sender, from prize-winning playwright Ike Holter, offers a quartet of interesting and high-quality actors, all of whom shine in their roles. Set in a millennial's Chicago apartment, Tess (Stephanie Wittels Wachs), Lynx (Jeremy Gee), Jordan (Gabriel Regojo), and Cassandra (Candice d'Meza) spend most of their time engaging in sarcastic and juvenile dialogue, all the while attempting to master the timeless art of “adulting.”
All four characters are so immature it is hard to watch. But like any unfolding disaster, you cannot look away, with each actor delivering at a higher level than the play deserves. Everyone is worth watching—not only in this production, but in their future performances.
Visually, Scenic Designer Stephan Azizi should be applauded for pulling me in before a word was uttered. He spares no detail, from underwear strewn on a barstool to the formidable arsenal of alcohol to the Ninja blender emblematic of the instant gratification required by these characters, even from their sustenance. Everything from the copy of Infinite Jest to the throw pillows to the lawn chair-studded rooftop is pitch perfect in creating the setting for hipster angst—an angst so clearly self-inflicted. I can’t think of how the set, and for that matter the lighting and music, could have been better.
The conflict arises when Lynx returns from a yearlong, unexplained disappearance. He was gone physically, but also absent from all social media—a radical rejection of the millennial stereotype who cannot survive without Facebook and a smartphone. But his “experiment” is not Thoreauvian (even though, like Walden, it centers on the Fourth of July and various declarations of independence). Instead, Lynx’s disappearance seems entirely self-serving, the mean game of a narcissist testing the loyalty of his friends and lovers. He tells Tess that she will “never know” why he did it, and, frankly, it is unclear that even Lynx knows the reasons for his actions.
With his return, Lynx must face the wrath of Tess, who was in love with him, as well as Cassandra and Jordan, who are now married with a child on the way. The reactions to his return range from Tess’s pain and disgust to Jordan’s quick forgiveness to Cassandra’s desire to just pay him to return to wherever he was, never to hurt his friends again. I know: It’s an unbelievable premise, but one that forces the audience to ponder the characteristics and values of this generation. All the actors have certain moments where they shine—which is how it should be in true ensemble performances—but Candice d’Meza is thrilling to watch as she channels her anger into lengthy lectures. She is perhaps the most responsible of the quartet, but she has her issues, and those become painfully clear as the play unfolds.
Houston actor and director Josh Morrison brought out the best in these actors, requiring them to avoid understatement in their interpretations, which fits well with the themes of the play. Disappointment, betrayal, addiction, and rejection rule—and the emotional damage of those acts is only tempered by alcohol or short bursts of nostalgia and humor. Yet the humor is not that funny, because the dynamics among the four characters are so sad and so dysfunctional. Tess admits that “I wanted more of him” in her competition for Lynx’s attention. But the audience must wonder: Why?
Spoiler alert: Although I was prepared for the excessive and grating use of profanity (you know strong language loses its power with overuse), I was not prepared for a scene in which one of the characters drops a bath towel to display full nudity. I have no idea why that was necessary for this play. Lynx is a narcissistic egomaniac, and adding “exhibitionist” to the list seemed redundant. Not only did this seem gratuitous, but it seemed to backfire—the shock distracted me from the dialogue, and I was immediately worried about all the high school students sitting near me. If I were one of their parents, I would not be all cool with them seeing this—just sayin’.
That said, Sender asks us what it means to “be legit” in terms of adult, personal responsibility, and fantasies of abdicating responsibilities punctuate the play. The problem is none of these characters are exactly Jack Kerouac, and, unless that kind of romanticism can be translated into maturity, discovery, or art, it remains mere abdication. That is the part of Sender that sends me right over the edge. Ike Holter does us a service by shining the light on this generation, and revealing the high drama of their emotional lives and the toll that kind of living must take. When Cassandra expresses her frustration and says “Grow up, y’all,” it is good advice delayed by selfishness, threesomes, and cell phones. Maybe Holter's next play will tell us what comes next.
Thru Nov. 11. Tickets $25. Rec Room Arts, 100 Jackson St. 713-344-1291. More info and tickets at recroomarts.org.