Review : ‘The Upper Room’ at New Ohio. Or: “Walrus Rapture - The Musical”.

Thomas Burns Scully

The world of Off-Broadway is often weird and wonderful. Sometimes more weird than wonderful. Sometimes just weird. I’m still trying to work out exactly where “The Upper Room” falls on that ill-defined spectrum. Twenty-four hours after viewing, this strange new-age play with music still has me wondering exactly what it was that I saw. I have come to one definite conclusion. It’s not a show for me. The message and tone of the piece did not kick me hard enough to leave any kind of emotional or intellectual bruise. However, when the lights came up at the end the first thing I heard was a woman behind me saying “That was beautiful.” And so, hence, my confusion. I’m trying to work out if I’m a philistine who doesn’t get what these crazy kids are getting up to these days, or if I’m the voice of reason justly raising a finger and going “Hang on a minute” in the face of ridiculousness. Hopefully I’ll have worked out something to tell you by the end of this review.

‘The Upper Room’ is written by Jeremy Bloom and Brian Rady. Inspired by stories of the ‘back to the land’ movement, they created this story of a community on an island off the coast of Maine. The inhabitants of the commune are worried. Faced with rising sea levels and mounting anxiety within their group they are unsure as to whether their way of life, and life in general, will continue much longer. Debate is sparked when one of their group suddenly disappears, presumed dead, and others report strange new cravings and physical sensations. They meet regularly in the titular upper room around a large table to discuss, pray and argue. Throughout the play there is music, performed and mixed live by Catherine Brookman and Joe White, with vocal assistance from the whole company.

The way I have outlined it above, the story seems fairly reasonable and straightforward. But the way it unfolds is anything but. The presentation of the play fluctuates between the characters talking directly to the audience in the manner of a science lecture, or TV documentary, and the audience watching scenes unfold in ethereal dialogue, or hyper-ethereal physical theatre. I’m all for using theatre to push the boundaries of communication and storytelling, but all this shifting of focus and time perspective left me fuzzy as to exactly what was at stake moment-to-moment. Not since I last tried to watch ‘Twin Peaks’ have I oscillated so quickly between being bored and confused. 

How the play dealt with character differentiation confused me too. You’re aware of the fact that they’re supposed to be individuals, but they don’t have distinct personalities or identities. There’s also next to no character conflict. At times, certain people do certain things to one another, but there’s never any lasting disagreement from these actions beyond mild disgruntlement. The whole thing felt like a dream that played with the idea of consequences, but never committed to anything other than an overall sense of doom. And it made for dull viewing.

That said, ’Upper Room’ is not without some merit. For one, the music is good, and technically impressive. It is live mixed and performed using minimal instruments, a microphone, the human voice and a looping station. Although an opening number with actors mimicking whale song and dolphin clicks went a bit far for me, generally speaking the organic soundscaping and unreal harmonies created by Catherine Brookman, Joe White and the cast (all excellent singers) were haunting and easy to listen to. Like a combination of Bjork and the XX. Through virtue of the way they were constructed, no individual song stands out. But if you were to give me a CD of the soundtrack, I would listen to it again. Also, the show’s movement pieces, though inefficient at moving along the story, were well constructed and interesting to look at. Downright innovative is the only way to describe the show’s use of an overhead projector to create dancing light patterns and special effects. Well done to Rady&Bloom and Jay Ryan on that front. ‘Upper Room’ also has moments that are genuinely, un-ironically funny. Characters obsessing over potatoes and compost produced easy laughs. But none of this was enough to distract me from what I felt were the shows unassailable flaws.

If you are planning on seeing this show, I recommend you stop reading now, because this is where I’m going to get in to spoiler territory.

I suppose what bothered me the most about the show was the play’s conclusion. Or, put more accurately, the show’s conclusion weighed up against the ineffectuality of its characters. Faced with the advancing ocean, and the fear of being consumed by same, the peaceful agrarians realize that they are turning in to walruses. No, really. It turns out that the girl who supposedly died actually dove in to the ocean and became a walrus. The physical anomalies experienced by the other members of the community mean that they are all on their way to the same fate. It’s an ending that sounds like M. Night Shyamalan meets Doctor Suess and it just doesn’t work.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that you can make a good story out of anything. I believe that you could write a play that ends with people turning in walruses and have it win a Tony. But this is not that play. I have two major problems with it. First, the sincerity with which the idea is treated. The characters all embrace their fate it like it’s this beautiful, spiritual thing; it fits in line so neatly with the cultish system of belief that they have been espousing. Their variations along the Gaia line border on the creepy throughout the play, but remain tolerable, if dull, because of their general passivity. However, when they are told they are going to become sea-creatures and they go on about what a beautiful thing this is to happen… I just wanted to burst out laughing. I haven’t found something so laughably serious since the “Goddess Arachne” segments of ‘Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark’.

Now, I could accept the idea that walrusification is a beautiful thing if these people had reacted like, well… people. If they’d questioned it, discussed it, laughed about it, and eventually gone… “You know what, this could work.” But the characters don’t, they go “Yes, oh my god, it’s beautiful. This was god’s plan all along.” And that’s that. I’ve never met anyone that ready to become a walrus at the drop of a hat. Or maybe everyone wants to be a walrus and I’ve just never noticed before. This is also possible.

Beyond the unquestioned ridiculousness of it, my second issue with the conclusion is how unearned it feels. Throughout the play, none of these characters do anything to prove that they are in any way worth saving. They’re working the land in a healthier way, yes. They’re more in touch with nature on a day-to-day basis, yes. But in the face of destruction, and the seeming deaths of the people they share their lives with, they’re shockingly un-proactive. They’re quite content to stay on their island and take the death of one of their own in stride. One member of the community suggests moving somewhere safer. He is immediately shot down, and the idea never broached again. And yet, despite no demonstration of survival instinct, they are saved, and its treated like a Judeo-Christian miracle of the oppressed. The characters of the play are caught in this Rapturist belief that they will be saved because they did the right thing and everyone else didn’t. And that’s exactly what happens in the play, a triumph of blind belief over proactivity. And I’m just a little uncomfortable with that.

So, long story short, I’m not a fan of ‘The Upper Room’. The things it does right (and it does do some things very well) don’t make up for the shambolic of plot, dull characters and its creepily-messianic treatment of the subject matter. I think it’s sanctimonious, and overly sentimental in a way that does not stand up to any real scrutiny. However, I am also prepared to yield that it is not a play for which I am the target audience. I can believe that there are people who will enjoy this play. Perhaps that are less cynical and questioning than me, more willing to buy in to the harmonious soundscape of the play, more concerned with an overall feel and aesthetic. People less questioning than me. And hey, maybe I will be wrong in the long run. Maybe when the New York Times review comes out, the woman in the row behind me who thought it was beautiful will be right, and the show will run forever. But this is my review, and I have to be honest about what I feel and think. And “Upper Room” didn’t make me feel or think. None of it felt real or relatable or human to me. It felt naive, oversimplified and prosaic. Goo Goo G’Joob.