Review: ‘DrunkTank’, and the Abused Foster Grandchildren of David Mamet and Sam Shepard

Thomas Burns Scully

    If there’s one thing these last few months writing for On Stage have taught me, it’s that ‘Modern American Theatre’ can mean practically anything. You see a lot as a reviewer. As Roy Batty says in ‘Blade Runner’, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” I’ve seen people turning in to walruses off the coast of Maine, and a teenage girl killing moo-bats in cave with a sword. But for most people, the Modern American Play refers to something more specific. A dark subject, dark humor, and a lot of swearing. It refers to LaBute, Guirguis, Shanley and the other abused foster children of David Mamet and Sam Shepard. Their popularity has spawned a lot of disciples and would-be heirs and not everyone’s up to the task. Off-Broadway is stocked to the tens with the dramaturgical equivalent of cheap plastic knock-offs of the former. But it’s not all dreck. Some plays come out swinging and rise above. Such is the case with Sa’ar Bakken’s new play ‘DrunkTank’ which just closed at the Producers’ Club.

    ‘DrunkTank’ is set where the title suggests, a holding cell for the inebriated and disorderly in a New York City police-station. Taking place over the course of an hour and some on a weekend evening, the audience watches as a group of strangers find themselves locked up together. Said strangers are: a hobo who needs a place to sleep for a night, a British playboy, a Bronxian wannabe gangster, a rapidly burning-out party-girl, and a psychedelia poster-child who was found in a sewer. They argue, fight, find common ground, and sing Bob Marley together until each of them, in turn, leaves the cell for one reason or another. All the while they are supervised by a bitter, high-strung cop with a chip on his shoulder. Essentially the play is shake-and-bake of personality conflict and unexpected kinship.

    Canadian Sa’ar Bakken’s work here fits neatly into the canon of ‘so fucked it’s funny’ playwriting. His character portraits and dialogue do not reinvent the genre, and the play as a whole is not a game-changer, but ‘DrunkTank’ accomplishes absolutely everything it sets out to do in a thorough and enjoyable way. The characters go through the ‘Breakfast Club’ story arc of mistrust, followed by kinship, followed by self-realization brought about by said kinship. There’s plenty of angry shouting, proliferate swearing, and drunk wisdom. All the while you’re laughing at Bakken’s dialogue, which is peppered with pointed jibes and great character humor. The observations and opinions made in the script are not up there with the work of Bill Hicks, but they are functional and are certainly not untrue. Anyhow, the main fun of the play is watching these temporarily incarcerated characters lock horns and play off one another. And it is quite fun indeed.

    Everyone in the play is a good fit. The performers look, feel and act like these characters with great ease. Grant Chamberlin as the homeless vagrant has a quiet gravity in his performance which anchors the show emotionally. Matthew Barter as the spoiled British brat feels like he just walked off an episode of ‘Made in Chelsea’. Gerome Samonte plays an over-hyped, over-compensating Uptown tough like he’s reading from the Bible of young John Leguizamo. Sophie Overwater may not actually be an actress, she may just be a drunk girl they found in the bar (and I mean that as a compliment). Yarin Brosh, similarly, is the exact portrait of a guy who has not been told that Burning Man ended several months ago. Finally, Jonathan Roshenburg, who plays the supervising cop, could well be on his way to a role on ‘Orange is the New Black’ with the look and demeanor he sports here. Good showings all round.

    All that said, the show’s not perfect. There are odd details here and here that need touch ups. Chamberlin looks a little bit too clean to have come straight off the street. Samonte’s character gets dismissed a little too quickly and easily. Why does the cop not cotton on sooner that the vagrant was only acting crazy to get in to a warm cell when he is clearly so well-spoken and insightful? Little niggles like that distracted me a few times. As did the show’s treatment of women. There is only the one female character here and she’s a raging stereotype. Calling it sexist would going too far, given the need for archetypal cliches in the execution of this play, but it does feel careless. Overwater’s ‘party-girl’ feels like its written with less nuance than the others in the show. It never crosses over in to LaBute level sexism, but it does remind you of his existence. 

    The set of the show, as well, whilst functional and unshoddy, could be fuller. The main feature of the set is the bars of cell. They are formed by several sets of partial bars that imply the rest of the cell, but do not line the stage fully, so as not to obscure the actors. As I said, it works, but I feel the actors would have had more to work with if a full cell had been constructed. I also enjoy fully fleshed out sets. Of course, there are plenty of good reasons why this would be a bad idea (bars obscuring actors, added cost, etc.), so I can’t bring myself to get too upset about it. Or anything else for that matter.

    All in all then, a good showing all round. Bakken's script is funny and brisk, the cast do great work, and the whole show hangs together with a tenacity that belies the ramshackle space it was performed in. If the play were running longer I would urge you to go and see it. As it is, it was only running this past weekend, so you’ve blunk and missed it, I’m afraid. Such is the way of micro-budget New York theatre. In lieu of that, I simply urge you to keep an eye out for Bakken and his cast. They did good work here, and can certainly be expected to do so elsewhere. And if ‘DrunkTank’ does re-emerge in the near future, I’ll be sure to let you know