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First Nighter: Richard Bean's Workplace "Toast" is Nicely Buttered, Dostoevsky's "Idiot" Transferred Giddily to the Stage

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Call them gang comedy-dramas, if you like. The truth is, you might want to get in the habit, because they appear to be coming our way. Is it a trend? Will it pass? Probably. All trends eventually pass.

Nevertheless, a few months ago Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crew opened at the Atlantic's downtown space (and will reopen shortly at their Linda Gross auditorium). In it blue-collar workers gather at the rest-and-relaxation room and get caught up in their factory's potentially shutting down. Now Richard Bean's Toast is at 59E59 Theatres. In this one blue-collar workers gather in the canteen and get caught up in their factory's potentially shutting down.

The only difference between them is: In the former, the factory turns out automobile parts; in the latter, the factory turns out bread. Okay, the other difference is that the former factory is located in Detroit, and the latter is located in an unnamed England industrial town, where the men speak in a heavy dialect that might daunt some stateside auditors but really shouldn't.

It shouldn't because, just as Skeleton Crew decorated the just-ended theater season, this one shapes up as a strong play for the season getting underway--and a championship bread loaf goes to the seven character men who make up the cast.

Blakey (Steve Nicolson) is the snap-to foreman, although not greatly loved Colin (Will Barton) would like to take over the position. Old-timer Cecil (Simon Greenall), who assumes this could be his last job, and whippersnapper Peter (Matt Sutton) play a continuing game of grab-the crotch. Taciturn, dim-witted Walter Nelson, known as Nellie (Matthew Kelly), will take on any task assigned him and husbands his cigarettes closely. Dezzie (Kieran Knowles) is an all-round jolly presence, whereas timid Lance (John Wark) arrives as a temp student but actually has another agenda going.

Bean, who's beloved this side of the pond (as he is that side) for One Man, Two Guvnors, spends the first act introducing the co-workers and watching how they react with each other on their half-hour breaks or on their briefer cigarette breaks. He listens in to what they have to say to boss Beckett, who frequently phones. (My guess is that sly playwright Bean picked the name Beckett, because these men are living their own downhome version of Waiting for Godot.)

In the second act, suspense mounts when a bread tin has been sucked into the main mechanism and has caused a breakdown in operations. This maddening turn of events threatens the men's ability to complete an important large order thrust on them at a late hour. They'll need to stretch their shift to the early morning, as it is.

What will happen? Will agreeable Nellie venture into a hot-oven area to retrieve the tin and possibly scorch himself, or worse. Will someone else do the dirty duty? If no one can, will that spell the end of the factory and the end of their careers and incomes?

No spoilers will be included here. What can be said is that Toast, which takes place 40 years ago, chronicles the slow death of the industrial economy in England just as Skeleton Crew covers that disturbing evolution in the States. Bean, who's an expert with a quip and a joke, has something more serious on his mind here than he did with the lovable One Man, Two Guvnors, and he has the right cast, the right director in Eleanor Rhode and the right set designer in James Turner, who must have had a bang-up time covering the set with the flour that layers the players, too.
Decades ago James M. Cain was asked during a New York Times Book Review interview how he regarded what Hollywood had done to his books. He responded by saying that Hollywood had done nothing to his books and pointed to a shelf on a nearby bookcase. "There they all are," he said.

The wise retort came to mind when I was at the semi-immersive stage adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel, The Idiot, as plain Idiot. Did I say "stage adaptation"? Maybe a better phrase would be "stage tickling."

Robert Lyons and Kristin Marting have employed actors Daniel Kublick, Lauren Cipoletti, Purva Bedi and Merlin Whitehawk to impersonate, respectively, Dostoevsky's Prince Lev Myshkin, Aglaya Epanchin, Nastasya Filippovna and Parfyon Rogozhin.

They go about their assignments in a Nick Benacerraf "environment. It consists of crisscrossed narrow oriental rugs that divide a more or less square room at HERE. Also featured are four beaded curtains as doors and one stage, where the characters can talk into a microphone, if so inclined. Over the central area hangs a circular screen surrounded by four rectangular screens on which Ray Sun Ruey-Horng can air videos or the actors can use a handy camera to televise each other.

In redacting The Idiot Lyons and Marting have concentrated on the complicated, bordering-on-ludicrous love-hate relationships between and among the four focal figures. We all know that the Russian author delved deeply into the psychology of his personae, but we may not know, or accept, that what he observed then resonates strongly with the manner in which love plays out in contemporary society.

Dressed by Kate Fry in colorful outfits--Kublick wears silver loafers in which he bounces about lightly--the four love-haters sing, dance and carry on. At one point they do a lively routine Marting has choreographed to, apparently, Larry Heinemann's music. They bring it off joyfully. At another point, Cipoletti of the striking profile (and not that long ago seen in Heathers, of all things) sings a Russian folk song in Russian. The Russian lyrics are shown on the screens.

Who can say what Dostoevsky would make of the brazen liberties taken with his famous work? (This is the third time Lyons and Marting have taken on Dostoevsky. This reviewer's has only seen this one.) But somehow the enterprise is so unexpected and astonishing--and the players so committed to what's asked of them as they sometimes weave through, and address, the dropped-jawed patrons--that it's difficult to laugh off the proceedings outright. Sometimes something so gleefully bold in nature deserves a succumbing respect.

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