Utility: Mundane Made Meaningful — Closes at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater February 20, 2016

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 Vanessa Vache as Amber and Alex Grubbs as Jim. Photo Russ Rowland.

Vanessa Vache as Amber and Alex Grubbs as Jim. Photo Russ Rowland.

by Emily Schwed
directed by Jay Stull

presented by The Amoralists
at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre
224 Waverly Place
New York, NY 10014

Phone: (212) 627-2556

Hats off to playwright Emily Schwend who, aided by an excellent cast, manages to make an eighty-five minute script about nothing in particular hold our interest—almost all the time. In a small Texas town, Amber, (Vanessa Vache) struggles to keep her family fed and provide a few nice moments like a birthday party for her eight-year old daughter. Amber works two jobs that don’t make ends meet and has an on-going sparring war with her mother, Laura, hilariously played by Melissa Hurst.  Amber’s estranged husband Chris (James Kautz) tries hard to stay in Amber’s good graces and wants to move back in with her and her three children but his pill taking and sleeping with other women sorely tries her patience. Jim, Chris’ brother, beautifully handled by Alex Grubb, holds his emotions tightly in check and speaks mostly in short bursts. His recollection of a smoke break with Amber some time ago meant a lot to him and we understand this even though he barely acknowledges it.

There’s a rich sense of life offstage that include Chris’ relationship with a woman at work and the cramped life at Laura’s house where Amber ‘s brood has camped out because their own house is literally falling apart.

Not a lot happens onstage: Amber makes sandwiches for school lunches, people smoke, drink iced tea and wrap presents for the coming party. The most dramatic moment is when the lights go out because Chris neglected to pay the utility bill. Schwend and the actors do such a good job, the niggles of everyday life become important and we see how just such everydayness wears people down.

Kate Noll’s set perfectly conveys the ordinary Texas kitchen and prop master

Zach Serafin works hard assembling all the items needed ranging from balloons that lie instead of floating (helium costs money Amber doesn’t have), candles and sandwich fixings. The sound design by Jeanne Travis could use some help; confusingly, it conveys rain which is at odds with the lack of rain we’ve been told about. Playwright Schwend might also rethink the title which doesn’t quite convey this insight into this working class family for whom $25 for partial payment on a utility bill is almost impossible to come by.

This is a play about small but meaningful actions. When Emily Schwend sinks her teeth into richer, deeper experiences, she’s going to make a big impact. Meanwhile, Utility is moving and well worth a visit.

About the author

Mari S. Gold

Mari S. Gold is a freelance writer who contributes to many magazines and websites. Her blog, But I Digress… , on cultural events, travel, food  and other topics is at www.marigoldonline.net. She lives in New York City.

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