Death of a Social Climber

Another snow day at the Minneapolis impound lot

Another snow day at the Minneapolis impound lot

I have a recurring dream: I stand at a vertiginous height—heights terrify me, a damnable weakness, as everyone knows who shares it—and must, for my survival, execute a once-in-a-lifetime leap across a chasm to the other side. I stand, calculate the angle, and wonder how much juice remains in my aging legs. It's a scenario that has yet to come to a satisfying end.

Now on to another impossible fix. The Jungle's staging of Patrick Meyers's K2 levels a strong enough kick in the guts to leave an audience shaken. The setup is straightforward: Taylor (Kevin D. West) and Harold (Tim McGee) have scaled perhaps the world's most formidable peak. When the action opens, they wake with the morning sun, having survived the night exposed on a ledge 27,000 feet up. The catch? Harold is nursing a broken leg he suffered the day before when the duo had just begun their descent.

This nightmare takes place on Joel Sass's set, which replicates a terrifying sheer rock face and ledge on the Jungle's compressed stage. Taylor, a prosecuting attorney back in civilization, and Harold, a physicist, see that each of their particular talents are cosmically irrelevant, given the dimensions of their predicament. Stuck in the middle of a 600-foot wall of rock and ice, and short a rope they need to lower Harold down, they find that their victorious descent from the summit has become a rescue operation. And Harold is now an insurmountable liability.

West gamely climbs up the set 20 feet above the stage, as his character searches for the rope that might save Harold. It turns out Taylor has found a unique companion. Harold, in a bid to entertain his pal during these climbs, recounts his adolescent fascination with Einstein, and a later epiphany from when his wife and unborn son were endangered during childbirth. Harold is a handy guy, having experienced cosmic insights that enable him to ascertain the shape of the curves in the road ahead. He understands his own fate long before Taylor, who at this point clings to his last-ditch plan.

When the options narrow in Meyers's scenario, the philosophical clarity of the show comes into alarming focus. We suffer through an avalanche: Sound designer Sean Healey cranks the volume until it feels like the Jungle is about to collapse. And eventually Harold has to admit that their entire endeavor was profoundly shit-headed. It's the sort of insight that never arrives when you're bagging your Yoplaits and salami in the Rainbow checkout line, feeling bored with your life.

West's thrill-seeking attorney is a flatly pragmatic man, right up to the moment he loses his wig. Then he starts trying to beat up the mountain, which is not in his weight division. McGee hangs onto the spare poetry of Meyers's script with gruff humor, delivering a truly heavy final monologue that weaves together his character's philosophical detachment with an Our Town moment of clarity.

K2 was first staged in 1982 (presaging the classic mountaineering disaster tale, Touching the Void) and it played on Broadway as well as in Europe and Asia. No wonder: This is the kind of white-knuckle tale that can fill a man with fear when he's no higher up than the basement of his ranch home. (Surely I'm not the only one who looks down into the chasm at night.) And while it might seem slight, 90 minutes of this anxiety is about all that you can take—and about 90 minutes more than I could handle.