Spirited confrontation, tense silences and identity politics will top the menu at the college debut of Michael Perlman’s “At the Table” this weekend.
The play focuses on a group of old college friends who reunite at a parent’s vacation home, where they discuss the subjects of gender, sexuality and race — with the questions of who is welcome to contribute to discussions on those issues central to all their conversations.
“It is definitely the most politically charged piece I’ve brought to campus to date,” said Abbey Burgess ’19, an experienced student director who will direct two more productions this academic year. “Every piece comes with its own set of challenges, but this is very relevant and very timely.”
Originally produced in New York in 2015, the play underwent some major changes — including an altered ending — for its Chicago run earlier this year, to reflect the shift in the political climate since the end of the Obama administration. Burgess saw the Chicago production four times this summer and decided that the “hyper-realist” show – a type of theater that Burgess said is not typically performed at Yale – was something she wanted to bring to campus.
“It’s very much a piece about recognizing when your voice should be used and when you need to take a step back and let other people take hold of the conversation, which is something that will be good for this community at Yale,” Burgess said. “It’s very easy to get used to taking up a lot of space.”
Burgess reached out to members of Broken Nose Theatre Company — the group that mounted the Chicago production — and they connected her with Perlman and his agents to obtain the rights to perform the play.
In order to make the characters more relatable to a college audience, Burgess also got permission to age the characters down from early-30s to late-20s. This relatability is something cast members believe is central to the play.
“Every person in the show is a recognizable person from our lives,” said Payson Whitwell ’20, who portrays Chris, a white, educated feminist. “[Chris is] not great at understanding where she falls short in terms of what she’s doing and who she’s including.”
Logan Rivers ’21, who plays the stereotypically privileged Stuart, believes “At the Table” stands apart from other plays about identity politics because it’s “not removed temporally” from life at Yale, and could easily mirror potential conversations between Yalies who choose to spend fall break together. Given this level of relatability, he hopes the play will feel “uncomfortably close to home.”
According to Burgess and cast members, the show brings the promise of tense drama as it undermines common tropes, defies audience expectations and brings about a certain level of audience discomfort. The cast also hopes the play will prompt introspection from its audience.
Peter Gray ’18, whose character Leif appears only in the play’s second act, said he was shocked it was “so charged onstage” when his character entered the narrative. He described the silences as “charged and full.” He characterized the atmosphere as engaging and challenging. The level of tension and discomfort simultaneously creates both a craving for resolution and a realization that the discomfort is “true and representative of what is going on,” he said.
Gilberto Saenz ’19 said the process of portraying his character Elliot — an upper-class, white, gay male who often “uses his queerness as a shield to stay away from the pain of others” — made him realize that some of the people he admired as “really good allies” occupied spaces that weren’t appropriate for them to occupy.
“One experience does not mean that you can reach out into someone else’s and take that experience from them,” Saenz said. “Elliot learns to be quiet, and that’s something we all can learn from.”
One of the great things about the play is that it acts as a “snapshot” rather than a “Band-Aid,” he added.
“I’d love for people to take a look at themselves for a brief moment. … This play can’t necessarily change you, but you can change yourself,” Saenz said.
“At the Table” will be performed Thursday through Saturday, with shows at 8 p.m. each night and an additional 2 p.m. show on Saturday.
Asha Prihar | firstname.lastname@example.org