Review: New York Theatre Workshop’s “DUST” is Heart-Breaking, Visceral Theatre

Milly Thomas in Dust (Richard Southgate)

Milly Thomas in Dust (Richard Southgate)

  • Kerry Breen, Contributing Critic - New York City

When I bought tickets to Dust at New York Theatre Workshop, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting into. I’d seen good reviews from peers online and from previous, international engagements, and I’ve enjoyed pretty much every NYTW has offered that I’ve had the privilege to see. Tickets were cheap enough, so I decided to go for it.

Walking into the theater, the audience immediately gets a sense of how intimate the play will be. NYTW’s Next Door space only has a building capacity of 74 people, so any show there is up-close and personal, but the simple set and three rows of chairs meant even more one-on-one engagement with the show’s solo star, playwright and actress Milly Thomas. Before the show begins, there’s an ever-present rumbling sound that seems to build ever-so-slightly until the lights dim and Thomas appears on stage, dressed in a simple nude bodysuit.

When the performance starts, audiences immediately know that it’s going to be a morbid ride. Thomas plays Alice, a young woman who has died by suicide, and her first comments are about the state of her body as she undergoes an autopsy. The first few minutes run familiar to Phoebe Waller Bridge’s iconic Fleabag, as Thomas whips through inappropriate humor and a string of foul language before turning to the real truth of the show.

Within minutes, the gambit becomes clear – Alice has died, but her soul is lingering on. She’s not bound by proximity to her body or to loved ones, and sets off on the London subway system before making her way home, where she finds herself confronted by the grief of her family and friends, and the realization that the world will continue to turn without her.

Throughout, Thomas plays her family, friends, and other characters, in addition to Alice. By my count, she whips through 10 separate characters in the 80-minute run time, in addition to playing both sides of Alice – the acerbic, witty-but-cruel, social-media obsessed Alice who her friends and family were familiar with, and the depressed, withdrawn person who she really is.

Some of those other characters are great – like a rattled, grieving mother, an over-the-top aunt who’s at turns supportive and unbearable, and a best friend who only wants the best for Alice but also needs to keep her own life under control.

To share too much of the story would spoil Thomas’s carefully-constructed twists and revelations, but a few moments deserve particular praise.

In one scene, Alice whips through three years in a haze of depression, and we see the time pass only through micro-facial expressions and her endless dialogue. In the span of three to five minutes, she’s at turns excited, angry, loving, cruel, and kind, with her internal turmoil only given away by the looks on her face and by the ever-increasing amount of time that’s passing by. For anyone who struggles or has struggled with depression, the haze that she presents is painfully common; it’s a moment that brought tears to my eyes in a way that few others shows have ever done.

There’s also a brutal funeral scene, where Thomas plays herself, three family members, and still finds time to offer withering commentary on the attendees. A heartbreaking speech from Thomas as Alice’s brother, Robbie, shows us that Alice isn’t the only victim here, and Alice’s own realizations are like a punch to the gut.

There’s other, smaller moments – a scene where Alice remembers a moment with her father as a child that started my own waterworks; a scene that comes seconds before the ending that turns the show on its head; a moment where all of Alice’s facades slip away and there’s nothing but regret and desperation for her mom.

Dust’s climactic scene is one that’s possibly more emotional, visceral, and painful to watch than anything I’ve ever seen on a stage. I found myself crying (silently, as to not interrupt the absolute brilliance of Thomas’s performance, one that matches Billie Piper’s intensity in Yerma and adds even more shades of pain), and mentally wanting the whole thing to stop speeding towards an almost-inevitable conclusion. There’s some verbal graphic imagery – including one or two lines that I can’t get out of my head, days later. It’s explicit and hard to hear and watch, and I’d caution those who deal with depression or suicidal thoughts to make sure that they can handle the material.

That’s not to say that people shouldn’t see it. It is haunting, and heartbreaking, and wonderful.  As someone who does deal with depression, it’s a great portrayal of something that can be so frequently misinterpreted, and watching Thomas unravel throughout the evening is a feat of acting that rivals performances by theater legends. It’s a show, and a performance, that everyone should see, even though the heavy subject matter can be hard to watch.

There’s also plenty of impressive technical elements, primarily with sound and lighting. The lighting in particular is used to signal scene changes, new characters, or Alice’s state of mind. For such a simple set, the three mirrors and metal gurney are used effectively, but the most effective tool is Thomas herself, who imbues every step and turn of the head with meaning.

This show is one of the prime examples of why people should take off-Broadway productions more seriously. It’s not likely to transfer to Broadway, and I’m not convinced that it should – as much as I’d love a larger audience to see this show, it would lose something essential by being removed from its 70-seat house. That doesn’t make it any less of an artistic triumph, and the fact that something can be great without going to a 500-seat house is one that seems to be disappearing lately as people want every good off-Broadway piece to transfer. (Not to dig at transfers at all, but it’d be nice to see people accept something as what it is, instead of instantly clamoring to see it in a larger house).

In short, if you only have time for one play in the next month or two, make it Dust. The show is spellbinding and heartbreaking, and once Milly Thomas starts her monologue, it never lets up. The stakes are high, the emotions even higher, and it brings attention to issues like depression and suicide in a visceral, true-to-life way I’ve never seen captured before.

 

Dust runs at NYTW Next Door until September 29.  It is written by and stars Milly Thomas, with direction by Sara Joyce, set design by Anna Reid, lighting design by Jack Weir, and sound design by Max Perryment. The show is produced by Ceri Lothian and Ramin Sabi for D.E.M. Productions. Anna Lambert stage manages.