A quick perusal of the Internet, and one can learn a lot about existential crises. They may be provoked by any number of earth-shattering events in a person’s life — a separation, a major loss, a death of a loved one, a life-threatening experience, a new love partner, psychoactive drug use or adult children leaving home. “Utility Monster,” written by Marina Keegan ’12 and directed by Chloe Sarbib ’12, delves into each of these momentous, and often terrifying, thresholds of life with an exceptional self-awareness unexpected from a group of such young thespians.
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Claude (Mark Sonnenblick ’12) is cursed. Enlightened by the public library in his hometown of “Queensbridge, Queens” Claude has become a utilitarian and consequently can only think in terms of starving Africans. Unable to find an audience at his local high school, Claude hits the streets of New York City to sell Oreos for five bucks a pop, or the equivalent of preventing an African child from “shitting himself to death.” In the throes of his curse, Claude finds an accomplice and most unlikely supporter: Sadie (Willa Fitzgerald ’13), a privileged Upper West Side teeny-bopper raised in the sheltered home of an elite artistic family, is surprisingly sympathetic to Claude’s utilitarian views.
As is so often the case with abstract philosophical ideals, the plan to sell cookies and thereby save African children snowballs into something resembling grand larceny. Unbeknownst to Sadie’s loving family — her mother Ruth (Adriel Saporta ’11) who was recently diagnosed with cancer and her brother Caleb (Michael Rosen ’14) whose passion for pot and electronic music is calling him across country to San Francisco — Sadie and her new friend hatch an ill-advised plan to sell the paintings of her late father and donate their “earnings” to Oxfam International.
Art is selfish, and Claude, far removed from its pretension, emphatically and all too successfully proselytizes his utilitarian doctrine. Sadie’s mother, a member of the artistic community herself, too questions the worth of artistic pursuits. In the midst of her battle with pancreatic cancer, her career as an author is suddenly rendered meaningless as she copes with her escalating sense of mortality.
And thus, two ways of life that never cease to conflict, yet continue to make the world go round, collide. Utility or artistry: What is one to choose?
Strong performances on both sides of the spectrum — both Sonnenblick as Claude and Saporta as Ruth — complicate the issue.
Rosen as Caleb, the aspiring electronic musician, pothead and older brother of Sadie, gives what is perhaps the strongest and most dynamic performance of the play. Initially fueled with the witty and energetic dialogue of Keegan, Caleb quickly wins the audience, as he becomes the man of a household in crisis at a time where his future is still very uncertain. Although the drug references and mannerisms that establish Caleb as “hip” can feel campy at times, his sheer enthusiasm shines through with the help of the hilariously absurd and lo-fi PowerPoint presentations sprinkled throughout (created by Jacob Paul ’13), which repeatedly allow the audience into the minds of the play’s characters. Caleb’s enthusiasm can only be matched by the utility monster himself.
The budding relationship between Claude and Sadie brews, but never fully blossoms until the last moments of the play, and romantics may leave unsatisfied. A more dynamic relationship is found between siblings Sadie and Caleb; the chemistry developed between Fitzgerald and Rosen as they cope with their mother’s illness and uncertain futures is a testament to both fine directing and performance.
Claude is cursed, but his curse is not one of mere utilitarian tendencies: His is a curse of reckless naiveté that renders him completely oblivious to the fact that the world is wholly against him. In this sense, Claude is precisely the kind of artist he comes to resent — just one nuance among many that makes “Utility Monster” a must-see production.
Correction: February 18, 2011
An earlier version of this article misspelled Adriel Saporta’s ’11 name.