How does one survive in New York City without being subsidized by one’s parents while making a modest income to pay the rent on a 300 square foot studio that is half of one’s income? One has housemates. That way one can afford a larger space at a reduced cost and actually be able to enjoy a finer lifestyle. There are problems, though. As the human numbers augument to share the space, conflicts arise as each must accommodate and subvert their own idiosyncrasies and proclivities to compromise with their housemates, especially when sharing the common areas (kitchen, bathroom, etc.). In the mix and melding of personalities who live together, what can result may be funny, dramatic or challenging, but it is never dull. And for some it sure beats living ALONE!
Lily Akerman’s World Premiere comedy The Commons, presented by The Hearth and directed by Emma Miller, explores what happens when particular housemates attempt to survive in an environment of diminishing resources and increasingly complex habitats with limited space. In the play we note how the living situation becomes pressurized and the individuals become stressed by the mundane ordinary. Miniscule issues balloon to paramount proportion when housemates attempt to share responsibilities though there is no one in the lead and all must decide by gaining consensus. Housemates must “take up the slack” for each other, set rules, then hold each other accountable when there are violations. Something as simple as doing the dishes or making bread takes on significant heft and can cause hurt feelings and oppressed wills, unless individuals have the maturity and equanimity to reach viable agreements.
Akerman examines four characters Robyn (Ben Newman) Janira (Olivia Khoshatefeh) Dee (Julia Greer) and Cliff (Ben Katz) and sets them interacting with and against each other as they confront homely situations like cleaning, dish washing, making bread and struggling against a mouse invasion. Akerman adds a fifth character, Anna (Olivia Abiassi) who is a romantic interest for Cliff. Anna’s brief visit convolutes the mix of personalities who already strain to get along. None of the housemates are friends, so it becomes an unusual occasion when they decide to go out to a bar together and in another segment let loose and dance their stress away.
The vitality and comedy of the production resides in the fine acting of the ensemble who make the most seemingly ridiculous superficialities (a dirty stovetop burner) of mega importance with authenticity, as if the issue was a matter of “life and death.” The humor of dealing with a mouse that had to be killed and the tragedy of the creature losing its life as memorialized by Janira (Koshatefeh does a wonderful job with this comedic bit) is marvelous.
As we chortle at the characters having to deal with their particular angst at the problem of living with others, we can’t help but note that their embroilios are telling. The common areas are the centers which carry the stress when a particular housemate like Cliff or Janira don’t act with accountability to the “whole.” As housemates attempt to resolve the issues the comedy rises and we identify with how humans act and react with guilt, excuses, judgment, subterfuge and inner upset as they attempt to manipulate the situation to their own satisfaction. Also, the philosophical approaches of each of the housemates become superimposed on the living situation for each. This is especially ironic as Robyn expresses his opinion that living with housemates communally is healthier than couples living and raising their family in isolation.
Aikerman’s play however, is about much more than the characters attempting to work out their living arrangements with compromises, meetings and rules enforcements. It is a metaphor for how we adjust to others “living on top of us” as sources and space diminish and we must decide whether we should open our borders or close them, accept refugees to forestall the humanitarian crisis or let them perish or ignore those who have been victimized by their own birth in third world countries. The Commons in microcosm is representative of the macrocosm. Behind the comedy bits and vignettes involving each of the characters in the hot seat, is the presentation of larger themes that Akerman highlights for all of us, whether we live in crowded cities with sparse affordable housing or less densely populated rural areas that hold few opportunities.
Some of these questions follow on a symbolic level: In the looming portent of climate change relocation, how will populations accommodate each other as refugees move from areas of devastation? How will dwindling resources prompted by global warming and weather weirding impact societies, turning the haves against the have nots who knock at their doors for help? Will cultures readily share or will there be genocide of ethnic groups? Do ethics and morality abide if leaders ignore human standards of right and wrong and replace them with money and power as the enforcement of decision making? Will everyone benefit if cultures shift to a “might is right” ethos or is that one more way of introducing self-destruction into the parameters of global reorganization necessitated by climate chaos which is already manifesting?
The Commons at its funniest reveals the base responses and reactions of housemates accused of their mistakes which are funny because they are exaggerated. But what becomes obvious is the dynamic of accountability. The housemates are accountable and responsible to each other. Selfishness no longer cuts it when one’s dishes are always left clogging up the sink and one is gobbling down another’s food because he or she forgot to go shopping. The results are humorous. But the underbelly of this is dark. In order to survive and thrive, we must live with each other and be responsible for our own actions as we contribute to the goodness of everyone else. Only by doing that do we all make our lives purposeful and valuable.
To fully appreciate Akerman’s larger themes, one must lift The Commons above the characters’ petty details to note the moral treatises underneath. Like the housemates who adjust to each other and hold each other accountable for their actions and “pull together,” so must we as nations globally do our part as contributors to each others’ greater good. Shirking our responsibility through science denial, moral and ethical turpitude, and negligence will only come back to haunt us in the end.
Kudos to the creative design team with scenic design by Emma Finckel, costume design by Dara Affholter, lighting design by Victoria Bain and sound design by Caroline Eng. The Commons runs with no intermission at 59E59 Theaters until 23rd February. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.