Writer and director Adam Rapp’s new play invites the audience to ponder many questions upon its ending, but the question that overshadows all others is unintended: what does it take to make a play? Are a fascinating premise, believable dialogue and nearly flawless acting enough? Well, no – as it turns out, even these ingredients can’t compensate for a storyline that suffers from too much distracting ambiguity.
Through the Yellow Hour opens on a tiny New York apartment not quite yet done in by a vicious war raging outside. That war has partially caved in the ceiling, shattered the windows, and left a body lying on the floor, presumably dead or sleeping (sleeping, it turns out). It’s quickly apparent that the USA is on the losing end of this conflict, and the streets are ruled by Eggheads—allegedly foreign soldiers wearing large white helmets who terrorize anyone they run across. Men are captured, castrated and tortured; women are stamped, catalogued and forced to wear bonnets in public. The penalty for doing otherwise is hanging in Union Square.
The sleeping person is Ellen (Hani Furstenberg), who has been waiting for her husband to return for the past 52 days. He left to find food, and we know it’s dangerous for anyone to be caught outside. Ellen surely knows her husband’s chances, but hasn’t yet allowed herself to think the worst. The question of his fate is one of several posed by the play. While some of these are resolved, many are not – which is the biggest problem here.
There’s an art to revealing the background of a complex story, and Rapp does this perfectly at first: a little at a time, in a subtle way, with convincing dialogue. Unfortunately, he never finishes the job. At the end, you’re thirsting for more answers that simply don’t come, distracting you from what the play may be trying to say. Is it a comment on the world we live in? A parable? The incomplete narrative lacks focus.
That this is a shame is due in no small part to the quality of the acting. Furstenberg delivers a sterling performance as the overstressed, increasingly paranoid Ellen: a victim of desperate circumstances trying to survive long enough to see her husband again, barely holding herself together. She’s matched by Danielle Slavik as the lost Maude, who sells her baby to Ellen for a few shots of prescription drugs. Maude’s habit is ultimately her undoing. She’s sent out at gunpoint after a climactic, if abrupt, fight over Ellen’s stash of medication. Alok Tewari also shines as Hakim, a seriously injured prisoner of the Eggheads who limps into the apartment with news of Ellen’s husband.
But great acting and an evocative set can’t hide the flaws in Through the Yellow Hour. The dialogue, premise, and set-up are fantastic, but a fantastic set-up requires an equally fantastic follow-through. This play can’t overcome its incompleteness, finishing without exploring in a satisfying way the many ideas and devices it introduces. It’s one thing to end with some questions unanswered, but Rapp fails to explain enough of what has already happened.
It’s suggested that the Eggheads aren’t who they claim to be, but this – and the motivation for their bizarre laws – is never expanded on. What is behind the (oddly inconsistent) racial biases exhibited by some of the characters? And why would someone as devastated by hunger and lack of resources as Ellen ultimately agree to take in and support another person? And why would she think he could be the key to starting the world anew? It’s as if a handful of pages of script were lost before rehearsal.
Through the Yellow Hour provides a well-acted sequence of conversations. But when that sequence fails to pull together coherently, forming only the loosest of stories, we are left with the equivalent of a gold watch with a broken mechanism: a collection of beautiful pieces that don’t work as a whole.