Point of fact: D.C. theater is not producing enough plays about contemporary life in D.C. It’s one thing to put on works about locals with Politico-approved “skin in the game,” like Arena Stage’s upcoming Antonin Scalia argument The Originalist; it’s another to inquire about the lives of those who live and work on the edge of national importance, trying to make sense of themselves.
Field Trip Theatre, in its mission statement, strives to accomplish just that. The troupe’s first season outside of Fringe—traditionally a more hospitable home for District-set works than the regional powerhouses with expensive seats to fill—opens with Bigger Than You, Bigger Than Me. It’s an original work from local playwright Kathryn Coughlin revolving around three public employees in their early 30s. That a new local play concerned with the District should premiere at the Anacostia Arts Center is also a welcome deviation from the ambitious yet frequently imported selections that typically come through the nonprofit space.
It’s really a shame, then, that the play offers so little inside its sinister soundscape of helicopters and video games. These nightmares fill the air as an elementary school teacher tries to discern whether her colleague is having premonitions about a terror attack. Beth (Sophie Schulman) is, for lack of any other defining characteristics, the sane one, frustrated by her students and by her grandfather’s constant worries over her safety. Her new friend and pot buddy Adele (Mia Branco) seems merely aloof at first: She doesn’t give as much thought to her students as she does to strangers she passes on the Metro. Adele lives alone in an apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Capitol, a setting that facilitates a vision of… something awful.
Living on top of so many potential terror targets and an invisible network of high-level intelligence can create a potent tonic of adrenaline and paranoia, a recognizable D.C. mindset that Adele seems to be tumbling through. The themes of windows and news reports, of looking at events happening out of physical reach, would seem to point toward that interpretation. The set design, two diamond-shaped apartments adorned with large views of the Capitol and surrounding neighborhoods, emphasizes characters gazing at things the audience can’t see.
But the play doesn’t have enough nuance to create the ambiguities it needs. Adele’s dream (the first sign of any dramatic tension) arrives halfway through, after a first half that has done little apart from setting her up as a foil to Beth’s boyfriend. Tucker, played by a standoffish Joshua Simon, is a national security analyst whose work is too classified to share and who would rather play video games than talk to anyone. Beth is caught in the middle, with a tragic backstory that pays off in a rather cheap fashion. Coughlin, herself an elementary school teacher, at first seems to be mocking Beth’s naïveté (the character is desperate for “quietly troubled” kids, her favorite brand). But the rest of the play’s philosophy is painted in such broad strokes that any potential for irony gradually seeps away. In this universe, people either Make A Difference or they don’t.
The best exchange in Bigger Than You happens as Tucker struggles to carry on a conversation about what he does at work. It’s strange to embark on a career so classified you can’t tell your significant other, let alone make casual conversation at a party, and Coughlin’s dialogue captures this unsettling feeling well. It’s also a more localized dilemma (many District residents have met someone who can’t talk about his or her job) rooted in emotional reality (what does that level of secrecy do to a person?). But this is one moment of authenticity in a larger thesis that prefers to create conflict between false dichotomies: the baseless premonition stacked against physical evidence; the teacher and the security analyst arguing over whose job is really important.
Schulman and Branco give effective performances as they worm their way through mealy-mouthed monologues about safety and security. The play is set shortly before a 9/11 anniversary, and Coughlin’s mind is clearly on the national fascination with death and destruction. But the actors are hampered by stagnant direction from Nick Vargas, Field Trip’s artistic director. Characters sit around with awkward blocking, reciting their lines with silences so big you could steer a plane through them.
Sorry, was that a tacky evocation of 9/11 to make a boilerplate dramatic point? Tell that to these characters. Early on, Beth offers a grisly fantasy of blowing up a Le Pain Quotidien in the same tone as one might discuss an ideal morning commute (modern America, everybody). Later, Adele gives a stomach-curdling monologue of the horrors that await the District if no one heeds her vision: chaos in the streets, dead children stacked on top of each other. Tucker writes her off as a head case, even as she begs him to take her warnings to his bosses. She later does the same to Beth, pushing her to warn the school of an imminent threat.
We’re meant to feel conflicted over these exchanges, it seems. But any serious national security worker, even one as compassionate as Tucker is abrasive, wouldn’t spend half a second chasing leads to placate Adele. This isn’t Twin Peaks; there’s no Black Lodge of metaphysical intrigue where government workers take dreams seriously. Such a play might have have been fascinating in its own right, but Coughlin hasn’t established the right tonal atmosphere for it here.
It feels wrong to fault Field Trip for filling an unserved void in local theater, particularly with a run as brief as this (the play closes the 15th). It’s not their fault we have so few playwrights willing to take a chance on District-set dramas or so few theater companies willing to sponsor them. But this should be an opportunity to realize we can do better in our efforts to capture the local mood, to find the real dramas that eat away at people like the heroes of this play. This lack of local voices is bigger than Bigger Than You.
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