Playwright Howard Meyer packs a lot of meaty food-for-thought into his new play, “Senescence,” which is having its premiere at Axial Theatre in Pleasantville, where it runs through Sunday, Nov. 18.
As always in his work, there’s a lot on this writer’s mind, and it’s all there on stage, in the dire situation depicted that has universal import, in the uniformly excellent acting ensemble that brings it to vivid life, and in the supple vernacular of Mr. Meyer’s authentic and taut dialogue. This isn’t a musical, but in his expressiveness, he’s got rhythm.
The play’s title is a word that means aging, which, in the context of the play, can be inferred two ways: aging, as in maturing into a responsible adult; and aging, as in growing old before your time. As one character points out, there’s a difference in the quality-of-life between getting older naturally and “being kept alive longer” through modern medicine.
“Senescence” is a wake-up call for our times: It’s in part a reminder of how we casually and negligently allow healthy bodies to be inflicted by toxic byproducts of industry, and how we intoxicate ourselves with mood-altering medication, legal and otherwise, to avoid facing hard questions about the future. Put another way, as we make toxins that can kill us, we unmake ourselves.
The setting is Linden, N.J., home of Petra Oil Refinery, the second largest on the east coast. That’s the plant where a trio of millennials work and share a rented house: Rudy Malone (portrayed by Ryan Mallon), his girlfriend Natalia Janowski (Claire McClain), and Giuseppe “Geo” Gomez (Eric Cotti).
The character development is clear and specific in each case. We know precisely at which point each person is in his or her life and see the recognizable behaviors they represent in the rest of us.
Rudy’s and Natalia’s fathers worked their whole lives at Petra. Both died of cancer believed to be caused by carcinogens released in the refinery process. When not working their shifts, they get high on weed, listen to Nirvana, and approximate exercise by pedaling away on a stationary bike tucked in a corner of their cozy living space.
Mr. Meyer makes credible use of the knowing street talk that’s endemic to the demography of these characters. The venturesome playwright even tries his hand at a few rap lyrics, riffing off of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” and, to borrow street talk, the result is “dope.” He interlaces the exchanges with just enough well-researched dollops of scientific fact to make his points without turning it into an academic exercise.
Geo, who is fiercely proud of his Italian-Spanish heritage, is trying to rehabilitate himself after serving time for shooting someone. He wants to convince his dad that he’s righted himself enough to help run the father’s gas station. Natalia is looking to attend graduate school. As for Rudy, he ain’t goin’ nowhere, literally and figuratively. He’s a plant supervisor who repeatedly turns down promotions he’s offered by management.
It’s as if there are two basic ways to navigate this life: either move ahead purposefully in a more-or-less straight line toward specific goals of fulfillment, learning to grow and prosper and learn from adventures; or chase yourself while running in circles, avoiding adventures and, more likely, inviting disappointment, if not the outright depression that attends a static existence.
Into the humdrum lives of the threesome steps an agent of change who calls himself simply J (Michael Kingsbaker). They don’t know at first what to make of the soft-spoken, cryptic stranger. He is equal parts mysterious (in his apparent metaphysical gifts), transparent (in his activist’s proselytizing of environmental and human sanctity), and deeply flawed (in his checkered past).
Does “J” stand for Jesus? Or for Jeremiah, a biblical personage who is invoked here, along with his quotation: “Each pursues their own course, like a horse charging into battle.” J, Jeremiah, and the noun that is Jeremiah’s namesake—jeremiad—all bring to bear dire warnings against evil and destruction. It could be in the form of a hurricane with the force of a Sandy—which figures prominently in “Senescence”—or unsafe refineries like Petra Oil, which gets Sandy in its eyes.
Michael Kingsbaker admirably essays J as humanistic, humble, and hell-bent on following his mystical (and biblical) muse. Claire McClain, Ryan Mallon and Eric Cotti are fine actors all who make us feel as if they’ve known each other their whole lives.
The production is briskly and impactfully directed by James Fauvell, who gets great technical enhancements from his lighting designer Shane Cassidy and sound designer Jim Simonson, both of whom orchestrate a perfect storm of special effects. The efficient, “before-and-after” scenic design is by Eric Zoback. Chris Arrigo is technical director. Stage manager is Mary Cate Mangum, assisted by Virginia Reynolds.
Make no mistake. “Senescence” is an indictment against the moral turpitude of the oil industry, illustrating through dramatic writing and performance how its corporate chiefs take advantage of human nature and mother nature.
In the end, Mr. Meyer presents the audience—and society at large—with a binary choice: Do we, as Rudy declares at one point, “Keep our mouth shut” and be grateful for steady jobs and income, or do we stop misplacing our trust in the wrong powers that be, and start asking hard questions that may save us all from a dark, precipitous future.
“Senescence” can be seen Fridays, Nov. 9 and 16, at 8 p.m.; Saturdays, Nov. 10 and 17, at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m; Sundays, Nov. 11 and 18, at 4 p.m. Tickets are $27.50 general audiences; $22.50 seniors and students. Axial Theatre is on the campus of St. John’s Episcopal Church, 8 Sunnyside Ave., Pleasantville. Visit axialtheatre.org for tickets and information.