Spotlight: Messalina

Liz Josheff

Those with a lingering case of post-millennial dread will find plenty of nightmare fodder in Gordon Dahlquist's near-future social-breakdown drama. The action takes place in a bedroom during a dinner party hosted by Gavin (Topher Brattain) and Sarah (Emily Gunyou). The first sign that something is amiss comes from Sarah's expression: Gunyou appears shocked by some unspoken trauma, introducing a whiff of peril to this seemingly innocuous evening. When the guests start arriving, they resemble the cast of any downtown Manhattan story: a movie agent, an actress, a foreign playboy, and an epidemiologist thrown in for contrast. But on the way toward getting properly plowed, they come under the spell of a television screen that's turned away from the audience. Alas, they're not enjoying the latest episode of CSI Topeka; rather, they're witnessing a string of disasters and atrocities. Pretty soon, the characters begin to reveal the circumstances of their world, and it's a worst-case extension of the potential calamities of our time. The script is fairly grim and wordy, too, but Steve Busa's direction finds a consistent rhythm to propel the thing along. Brattain is sharp as the writer whose current preoccupation is with Roman decadence, and Gunyou wrings a desperation from Sarah. While she betrays a sense of worry, the assembled guests prove willing to pretend that the world hasn't gone to hell. Much of what makes this show work is its deft shifts in tone as the various characters separate and recombine in the bedroom. From moment to moment they exhibit giddiness, dread, abandon, and willful ignorance—a conspiracy of obliviousness. And it's not all apocalyptic: Miriam Must is hilarious as a doctor on the road and looking for fun, and Jon Cole's louche scenester seems likely to go out with a drink in hand. If the future is to be a ruin, let's hope it happens with such a sense of fun and wit.

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