Review By Teresa Gasparini
“What is irreplaceable nowadays?” A sentimental mug you bought in Germany when you were living abroad? No, if that breaks you can just go online and order it from the tiny shop on the corner in Berlin. Letters? Perhaps, but with technology these days you can always scan them to preserve their legacy. Love? Well, maybe. In a simple and almost mindless way, you can replace one person’s love with another. But what about the person who gave you that love? Now, that’s irreplaceable.
“What is irreplaceable nowadays?” is the gripping question asked within the first few lines of David Zellnik’s The Letters, and it sets the course for the powerful and emotional world premiere of this work at Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill, NY.
The Letters opens in 2014, as we follow 34-year-old Rajiv on an impromptu and much needed day off from work. He is processing the news of the death of his college roommate, Henry. Rajiv finds solace in the company of a co-worker (Laura), who didn’t know Henry, making her perfect company. Rajiv feels liberated (and at times exposed) as he reminisces about the letters Henry wrote to Rajiv over the course of their 20 year friendship.
Rajiv and Laura’s art museum rendezvous and roof top conversations recrudesce between scenes from 2002, when Henry and Rajiv are post grads living in Berlin, at an age when mistakes are considered learning experiences. Their third roommate, Rachel, completes a convoluted love triangle, and together they navigate a complex world of love, friendship, and uncertain futures.
The transitions between 2014 and 2002 effectively shape and move this story in unanticipated directions, keeping the audience enthralled and longing for answers from the first line to the last.
The small cast of four, all making their debuts at Bridge Street Theatre, are under the brilliant direction of John Sowle. Mr. Sowle’s resume is impressive, and it was evident this performance was guided by a skillful hand. Special note should be made of Sowle’s minimalistic and resourceful design, including projections on a brick wall, which served not only to set the scene, but to denote the time periods to and from which we were transported.
Shivantha Singer’s stand out performance as Rajiv is invested with pathos, charm, and humor. Singer flawlessly transforms between the carefree 22-year-old Rajiv of 2002, and the regretful, unsatisfied 34-year-old of 2014, typically with mere moments to make the transition. Singer portrays his character’s sense of having a “cross to bear” in such a palpable way the audience carries the weight with him. To achieve this sort of response is the work of a highly committed and engaged actor.
Sara Parcesepe’s energetic performance as Rachel adds an interesting complication to the story. Parcesepe bounds on stage with keenness and enthusiasm which she carries through the entire show, infusing the performance with subtle differences in expression as she, like Rajiv, evolves across the span of the two time periods, while questioning her relationship and future with Rajiv.
Laura is played by the capable Alexis Cofield, who provides a steady anchor to the 2014 Rajiv. Her raw honesty keeps Rajiv “in check”, and Cofield is able to do this with a coolness and humor that makes her extremely likable on stage.
Christopher Joel Onken as Henry is a marvel on stage and his performance is unforgettable. Throughout Act I, he comes alive talking about his character’s passion for languages, but for the better part of the Act, Henry acts an observant bystander; watching Rajiv and Rachel’s love story unfold. Even in this passive role, Onken is fully present and engrossed in every moment of every scene and draws the audience to his presence in a way which connects us to Rajiv’s grief at his loss. In Act II, Onken’s performance explodes with a level of authenticity and emotion that leaves the audience in captivated silence, hanging on his every word and action, as we learn the story of Henry’s fate.
Award winning playwright David Zellnik has penned a story perfect for our times, specifically singing out to the newly named Xennial Generation (a micro-generation stuck between GenX and Millenials). Xennials grew up in an analog world but are now living as adults in a digital world, and this provides an intriguing backdrop for the story. Zellnik explores whether our words free us or imprison us, whether love is rare or everywhere around us, and whether we are, or even want to be, smaller and smaller in a big world. The script captures the audience’s attention and will remain in their thoughts long after the show is over.
“What is irreplaceable nowadays?” There are moments in The Letters which suggest an answer to that incisive question. Performances such as this, which touch the audience in a meaningful way, set in a welcoming, unique, and intimate house, allow us to leave the real world behind and truly participate in an art form. An experience like that? That is irreplaceable.
The Letters plays through May 5th at the Bridge Street Theater in Catskill, NY. For tickets or further information visit www.bridgest.org or call 518.943.3006.
Teresa Gasparini is a local director, actor and is a co-founder of Hudson Valley Ovation. She serves as the Artistic Director for Clove Creek Dinner Theater in Fishkill, NY and as Executive Director for The New Deal Creative Arts Center located in Hyde Park, NY.