The acting shines and the premise is fascinating, but Mason Holdings’s Consumption is more than anything else an excuse to see the inside of a grand Victorian house.
Staged in a historic Ditmas Park home in Brooklyn, the play follows five separate but vaguely interlocking love stories–two teenage friends, detectives working a cold case, a fortune-teller and her bewildered client, a 1950’s TV sitcom couple, and an obsessive “doctor” and his tuberculosis patient–through alternating scenes that take place in different rooms, drawing the audience with them. Tracy Weller (also the production company’s founder and artistic director, who conceived the piece) and Devin Burnam (the playwright as well) acted all parts, listed in the script as either “T” or “D”.
The writing could arguably be called experimental or surrealistic, but it seems to want to go for unfettered instead. There’s a difference: unfettered writing throws conventions out the window for the sake of change or dramatics. Unfettered writing is self-indulgent; it flirts with laziness.
Experiments have rules. They need purpose. You can throw an unmeasured amount of random pantry ingredients into a bowl, mix them up, bake them. That’s not an experiment. Experimental writing tries new things in untraditional ways, but it’s never used as a mask for avoiding the hard work of structure and narrative and story.
That sounds more damning than it should. But ultimately, most of the stories are missing pieces crucial to making them actual stories.
Maybe it’s the dialogue. If writer Burnam was going for surreal in some storylines, he overshot into confusing territory. Certain scenes feel abstract for the sake of being abstract.
Maybe it’s the tantalizing suggestion that the five vignettes are connected in more than superficial ways. The more the production implies this, the more the audience wants it, but then the play never really follows through.
Really, though, it’s structure. There are so many good stories here, or stories that could be good with more care. Stories that were unearthed, raw, with a rock hammer and then left alone. There was no careful chiseling or light brushing afterward.
Like the storyline about the detectives: two partners, forging a mutual love based on years–decades?–of camaraderie. That bond then tested as one, and maybe the other, feels an unannounced romantic interest. “I’m like a swan, get it? I mate for life,” T says, trying to explain to her new partner the meaning her old partner gave her. There was a story there. It was good. It was just buried. You see glimpses of it, exposed in tiny fits, like sunlight through holes in the canopy. Mostly it’s blacked out by dialogue too distracting to fit the piece, dialogue meant to sound surreal or quirky or heavily genred on purpose.
Like the TV couple. Their story is compelling, sad, funny, but ultimately confusing. This time the dialogue eventually finds its rhythm, but it takes a while to get there. While the audience spends much time trying to understand the line they just heard, the story slips by.
Like the fortune teller. Time seems to stand still when D unexpectedly acknowledges the other storylines, when he explicitly calls out the physical resemblance of T’s multiple roles–when the play swerves toward a sort of Cloud Atlas-like structure. But within a few minutes this feels like a red herring–vaguely implied and then abandoned, or left purposely subtle to sidestep the work of fleshing it out.
There are other, less serious misgivings. The expansive house is beautiful and fun to move through, crafted and decorated in way that lends historical texture to a play spanning decades. It feels all the more wasteful, then, to only ever see four rooms of it by the end (even if one of them is a gorgeous grand ballroom). Getting just a glimpse is a needless tease. Still, director Kristjan Thor paces the play’s movements well, considering what he’s working with: Twice I thought I’d seen the end of the available space, only to be taken through another doorway.
No qualms with the acting itself, particularly Weller’s. Both she and Burnam are masterful at shifting abruptly back and forth between believably different personalities, with no loss of fidelity.
The immersiveness is lacking. One day, a play will come along that truly interacts with its audience, that doesn’t simply ask them to move through different rooms, that will set the standard for what is allowed to be called “immersive.” Consumption is not that play, and doesn’t seem to try. An immersive play can’t be executed anywhere else; Consumption could have been performed on a proscenium stage.
But this became a metaphor for play itself. The hint of something, the taste of a grand idea. And then no follow-through, leaving you wanting something more.