Thomas Burns Scully
The more I read about science and the mind, the more I worry that being a critic is a terrible idea. Largely because, you can’t be scientific about it. You can be as empirical as you may reasonably try to be, but because we’re dealing with a gut emotional reaction to an emotional stimulus, there’s a lot of room for pilot error. An anti-apologist would say, “You should never apologize for feeling something you feel, embrace it and own it,” and that works great for therapy and so on, and often works well for critical writing. But then, when you’re writing about something that is someone’s baby, someone’s pet project, hours and days and months of their life coalesced, what right do you have to rely on such a faulty fuel gauge? You might say, “It can’t be that bad,” and maybe it isn’t, but science is a wonderful contrarian, and often an iconoclast too.
We are far more likely to react to a color or a piece of music than we are to a line of dialogue. Even then, we are more likely to react to the way the line is said, than its actual content. Even then, we are more likely to react to the way the person saying it moves and looks than the line. And that’s not taking in to account conditioning factors like, did you have a bad day before the show? What was the weather like? Are you in any pain? This may seem trivial, but more stock purchases on Wall Street are made on sunny days, a girl asked out for a drink by a stranger is more likely to say yes on a sunny day. Your emotional life pre-show is just as important to your experience as the show itself. So, what’s this building up to? Well, I didn’t like Rhett Rossi’s one-man show ‘This is the How’. It may have been for the reasons I’m about to outline. Or it may be because I didn’t like the color of the shirt the person next to me was wearing. According to science.
‘This is the How’ is Rossi’s own personal tale of growing up in Long Island, falling in and out of cliques, drinking, burning out, interacting with his family, and singing heavy metal in to a hockey stick. It starts out as a semi-carefree tale of exploits and coming of age in the eighties, then gradually turns in to a darker tale of tragedy. The story is obviously very personal to Rossi, that goes without saying, but something in the way he tells it felt bland to me. Let me try and explain what I mean.
There’s nothing wrong with Rossi as a performer, so far as I can make out. He knows to stand, move about and say lines, the three things actors should know how to do. He is a likable presence and has the quiet confidence and assurance that comes with a good few thousand hours on stage. But there was something about the show that just didn’t hit home with me. While other people in the audience where in hysterics or crying their eyes out, I was unmoved. I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the time since watching, and I have two theories.
My first theory is that he is covering ground that has been better covered elsewhere, and hence I find it dull. This might seem cold to say about a play that deals with a real life and a personal tragedy, but hear me out. As far as works that remember what it was like to be in middle/high school in an era gone by, ‘Dazed and Confused’ is the go-to. Yes, it’s set about a decade earlier than Rossi’s piece and in a different state, but so much of the first two-thirds of the show, detailing Rossi’s search for acceptance feels dully familiar because of movies like that. I had definite feelings of “I’ve seen this before.” And prior to the tragic turn, there’s not all that much that’s unique about it. You can see this story in the aforementioned Linklater movie, in the 1983 Sean Penn ‘Bad Boys’, even (sort of) in ‘Fast Time at Ridgemont High’. Maybe with a bit of ‘Bridge to Terabithia’ thrown in. In a phrase: the coming of age thing has been done, and Rossi doesn’t have much new to add to the conversation.
My second theory, which works in tandem with the first, is that it comes down to Rossi’s writing style. He has a niggling propensity to Kerouac-out on descriptions of Long Island and the emotional state of being a youth. He often goes in to superfluous prose in a manner which seems to scream out “Look how much I’ve learned and how far I’ve come! I’m smart and understand my life! I have the soul of a poet!” much in the way that Russell Brand does when he weighs in on political discussions. Only Brand is more convincing. It’s very distracting, and dull to listen to. There are exceptions to this. When he deals directly with the tragedy that befalls him (I won’t share this here because spoilers) he strips down his writing style to a much rawer, more honest mode that is genuinely endearing and makes you feel for the guy. I couldn’t help but think, if more of the show had been like this, I might have had a better time.
Although, there is still yet a question unanswered. Why was everyone else getting such a kick out of it? The sturdy, medium-sized crowd around me at the theatre were laughing regularly, and crying on command. Why was I not so affected? Theory one: I have no soul. Theory two: the rest of the crowd were hysterically disturbed nervous wrecks. Both possible, but unlikely. Theory three: this was a small, intimate show, performed at a small, slightly out of the way theatre… were the audience all friends and family of Rossi? Possible. When you watch a performer, particularly a comic performer, they usually need to first “win over” an audience. Rossi didn’t seem to have to do that with this crowd, suggesting they were already on side. There were also a couple of moments in the show that seemed to be ‘in jokes’ of a kind, where the audience laughed before the punchline and I found myself baffled. So, people with a natural greater attachment to Rossi than I enjoyed the show more fully. Theory four: whatever combination of stimuli had affected me that day put me in the wrong mood for watching this show. So, like I said before… maybe it was that one guy’s shirt I didn’t like and not ‘This is the How’. Also possible. The show runs until October 31st at The Playroom on 46th Street. If you’re interested, go see it. If not, don’t.
‘This is the How’ runs at The Playroom until the 31st of October. Tickets start at $30. For more info and full show schedule please visit: theplayroomtheater.com
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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