In the 15 minutes or so before Cat's Paw starts, a series of fake news broadcasts is heard as the eco-terrorist attack at the center of the play unfolds. These few riveting moments far outstrip everything else that happens in William Mastrosimone's dull script, which never manages to bring the conversation about acts of violence, the degradation of the environment, and the role of the media in political and social discourse beyond freshman seminar level. Toss in a badly miscast lead role and an ending that goes completely off the rails, and you have a piece that can't take us very far.
In the wake of a car bombing that kills a dozen senators (and possibly plenty of bystanders; that death toll is never mentioned or considered), the leader of the Earth Now! cell, Victor, brings in TV reporter Jessica Lyons (a solid Katherine Kupiecki) for an interview. Okay, he has his apparently last remaining lackey Cathy (Katie Willer) kidnap the reporter and bring her to their secret base. Over the next 90 minutes, they conduct an interview of sorts as he tries to explain his motivations, bringing in the group's hostage, an EPA flunky named Mr. Darling (Nathan Tylutki), to explain his role at an event 10 years in the past that seems to connect several of the characters.
Victor is supposed to be a master manipulator, more of a David Koresh-type leader than a radical, direct-action-inspired environmental activist. However, based on David Beukema's performance, Victor couldn't convince you to sign a petition for Clean Water Action, let alone immolate yourself or agree to take out a piece of the Capitol. Beukema doesn't bring any of the charm or sheer force of personality needed to convince people to die for the cause. Instead, he sounds like a petulant child who is used to getting his way.
That may be pretty close to the truth, but it strips out most of the tension here. Based on the performances, the reporter Jessica should eat Victor for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. Instead, the only tension is provided by the looming threat of violence, which, when it comes, makes little sense except to provide a shocking (if not surprising) finale.
There are good touches here, especially from Willer and Tylutki, who are able to battle their way past the limitations of their characters and provide some nuance to the proceedings. Their performances have the depth that a play with this subject matter needs, and that it is missing at nearly every other turn.
On an absolutely stripped-down Playwrights' Center stage—even the windows on the far side are uncovered—the only things on the floor to draw our attention are two squares of pure black paint, outlined with white as if in chalk. For the characters in A Short Play About 9/11, these specters are always looming, representing not just massive loss but incredible change.
A sharp, often funny piece, Dominic Orlando's play turns the clock back to the heady, confused weeks just after the attacks, when the very fabric of American life was in flux. Into this step three main characters—a TV comic who has dared to joke about 9/11, a Russian bio-warfare expert in town for a TV appearance, and a true lost soul who haunts the city looking for her identity. The moments feel discreet, just observations on the experiences, until the finale in Union Square when our characters connect.
The small company does strong work from top to bottom, led by Laurel Armstrong as the lost girl. She lives in an uneasy half-life that Armstrong evokes with every move and tone of voice, adding layers of complexity to each moment on stage (crafting a character I would love to see in a full-length play of her own). David Hanbury makes the comic, Leo, a somewhat loveable asshole who is a step behind the new reality, and Luverne Seifert does similar work with his boozy Russian scientist, whose clarity in vision seems to grow the more he drinks.
Orlando directs with the same kind of spare exactitude as the staging, letting the characters' own inner chaos, doubt, and eventual touches of understanding play out for us to see.