Natalie Rine, Associate New York Critic
New York, NY - If instant gratification is the adage of today, let’s go back to 2010 and make ‘em wait for it.
That seems to be the approach “Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson,” the new play by Rob Ackerman, is taking, inspired by the true making of an AT&T TV commercial in which a famous film director puts movie star Luke Wilson’s life in the hands of a very jittery props guy, just to make an attack about spotty coverage. Or does this stunt serve a larger metaphorical purpose?
This question is explored with the aid of Theresa Rebeck’s dazzling New York directorial debut, utilizing tableaus and pacing that paint the piece with orchestral precision. Mr. Ackerman and Ms. Rebeck have built a play that thrives on vacillating between tension and comedy, living somewhere in between the audience’s conscious of comfortable backstage drama and biting political commentary on existing power structures, perfectly suited for the multi-tasking, conscious-raising audiences of America 2019.
On the set of the commercial filming (a glorious design by Christopher and Justin Swader), a quirky set of characters populate the story, each taking a jab at telling the story of what occurred while filming the infamous gumball drop. There’s Ken (Dean Nolen), special effects and no-nonsense master, who values the monetary safety his union job allows (if not always the physical safety some stunts may require). Having joined him on some of these less-than-safe commercial gigs in the past, effects and props assistants Rob (a delightfully fumbling George Hampe with boundless youthful exuberance) and Jenny (the hilarious Reyna de Courcy) respectively are game for what they think is a high-profile harmless commercial shoot with an idol celebrity—that is until famous director Errol Morris (David Wohl) instructs them to explicitly harm movie star Luke Wilson (charismatic Jonathan Sale) by hitting him with gumballs he thinks will fall only around him. In the middle of this moral workplace conundrum is Alice, the first assistant director, played among other hilarious cameos by the mega-talented Ann Harada, displaying fine work juxtaposing comedic timing with the heart-breaking reality of a working mom put in a compromising position, when standing up to the director for violating union safety has her job and reputation explicitly threatened by the man in charge of this gumball mayhem.
The man in question, Errol Morris, facilitates the psychological torture of the ensuing seventy-five minutes through a lens of one of his documentary films, breaking the fourth wall repeatedly to pause, comment, and explain certain actions or points of view. However, he’s not the only one trying to control the narrative of the play, as each character grapples with what is happening around and to them, pausing and playing as if trying to relive or recreate their “truth” of what happened on set. At first it is unclear who is in charge of propelling the story forward, and if any of the characters are reliable narrators, but by the end it has become a sticky, voracious exploration of power structures and asking precisely who is in charge of telling the narratives we define as “truth” IS the point of the play.
David Wohl as Mr. Morris delivers a finely sculpted performance in the difficult role of an old white man in power, not exactly the hero in any current news stories. However, he delivers his fake sermons and demonstrations with the self-assured pomp and circumstance of a well-lauded TED talker. While not actually being particularly funny or insightful, it becomes clear here is a man used to holding the mic and having a rapt audience listening, and that is precisely where the danger he creates in the workforce comes from, more than any physical harm he may conjure up. With all the camera equipment and screens and gizmos sprinkled on stage in this jaw-droppingly fun commercial set replica, one expects given the subject matter that perhaps a high tech reveal is in store to show off theatrical prowess like the recent Network or Oklahoma camera work. Mr. Morris delivers one verbose monologue where such a moment could live, circumventing hot air about how a secret camera is used to get “real” reactions and “truth” and could be being used right now at this very moment; however, despite baited breath for some deep commentary on technology’s role in telling the characters (and by association the audience) how to view the “truth,” his hot air and purposefully vague tirade falls flat. He isn’t there to give us all the answers, but instead Mr. Ackerman has structured the play to fall so well flat as the characters try and fail to find explanations to explain away their realities, that all the technology on set or that Mr. Morris worships is not going to show us some deeper meaning or answers that we aren’t able to find or ask or reveal ourselves. The technology in question, whether the film cameras being operated or the cellphones being advertised, are just a means of communicating “truth” to one another, the definition of which is fallible and subject to what role one plays in harmful, outdated existing power structures within capitalism and democracy. Suddenly just dropping gumballs on someone isn’t so easily entertaining when one is forced to reckon with the economic and societal pressures and realities of a workforce at the mercy of an abuser.
A skillful sleight of hand, “Gumballs” is riveting from beginning to end, at first because you are waiting to see how they demonstrate the titular event (and it is indeed worth it when they do), but really because we find ourselves waiting for something larger to happen as we build empathy for these characters. Will a collapse of traditional power structures occur by the end? Will the team go on strike or quit the project to stand up for their moral and safety expectations of work and art? Will Mr. Morris be ousted as an abuser of power? But the beauty of this play is this never comes; reality is messier than that, and instead the characters decry how there is no democracy in real life workplaces and complacency within capitalism, even to dangerous extremes, is the reality for those whose voices are less valued. The question becomes which is more compelling- watching the gumballs scarcely missing Luke Wilson or knocking him out?
Just as the confections graze our precious actor, this play scratches not quite full comedy, not quite full outright decrying of our social state. Through expert layers of storytelling from all involved, from sitcom wind-and-punch jokes to over-the-top video and sound design (by Yana Biryukova and Bart Fasbender), “Gumballs” delightfully misleads as a harmless comedy, while its characters and audience learn the devastating futility of calling systems "broken" when they are working as designed.
Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson
“Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson” by Rob Ackerman is directed by Theresa Rebeck. Cast includes Reyna de Courcy, George Hampe, Ann Harada, Dean Nolen, Jonathan Sale, and David Wohl.
The creative team includes Christopher and Justin Swader (Scenic), Mary Ellen Stebbins (Lighting), Tricia Barsamian (Costume), Bart Fasbender (Sound), and Yana Biryukova (Video).
“Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson” opens on June 18, running through July 6, 2019, at A.R.T./ New York Theatre’s Mezzanine Theater (502 W. 53rd Street). Tickets are $25- $40 and can be purchased by visiting TheWorkingTheater.org or calling the Box Office (Ovationtix) at 866.811.4111. Run time is 75 minutes.