When I walked into the black box of Burton Taylor Studio to watch the new play Old Fashioned, written and directed by Felix Westcott, the first thing that caught my eye was the character already onstage: a young bartender (played by Jaya Rana), who stood behind the bar of a minimalist set, wearing white gloves and polishing a single glass.
The name of this woman we never learn. Rather, she acts as the quiet but reasonable interference in the passionate arguments of the play’s other two characters: Jim (Liyang Han), an investment banker from New York who has built himself on the American dream, and Oliver (Keir Maclean), a seventeen-year-old party-boy with too much money, a distant father, and a cocaine habit.
The performances of each of the actors told the stories of these individuals clearly. Raya stood watching for most of the play, reacting subtly to the disturbingly oblivious men unraveling before her with the pained restraint of a woman who must keep her head down and continue her job; Maclean’s obnoxious bursts of laughter and highly reactive explosions of emotion showed the immaturity and fragility of a young boy wrestling with his sense of purpose; Han’s directness and confidence in the space projected a self-important forty-something with the faintest air of American exceptionalism.
The place where Old Fashioned seems to fail, however, is in its script’s ability to achieve what it seems to strive towards. While the characters’ sudden lapses into verse cleverly reflect their self-perceptions, and while the play’s two wealthy men present scathing critiques of each other in a way that is refreshing, the cause-and-effect of the play from moment to moment is often unclear, and the script’s class commentary ultimately emerges as lukewarm. In an unjustified turn of events, when Jim eventually realizes that his own son could grow up to feel as aimless and deserted as Oliver, he suddenly decides to cut his business trip short and fly home. Despite the fact that Oliver’s extreme sense of entitlement leads him to snort three lines of coke off the bar and then threaten to have the bartender fired if she reports him, the script’s sympathy towards him completely strips him of culpability. Even more self-defeating is that its treatment of the bartender’s psychology is significantly less dimensional; we leave the theatre with very little information about her. She is granted the play’s last soliloquy, but her final statement (the play’s thesis) is as unsexy as it is anticlimactic: money can’t buy happiness.
Even so, I encourage audiences to see Old Fashioned. Not only do its actors succeed; the production as a whole is both clean and creative. The often-shifting set and stunning lighting design distinguish the worlds of the characters’ minds from the reality of the bar, and where Westcott’s script is uninvigorating and heavy-handed, his directorial style is engaging, assertive, and full of subtle symbolism. Indeed, the image of the bartender’s white gloves lingers still; I only wish she had had the opportunity to take them off.