Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews


Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 25, 2023

Photo Caption: A. J. Ditty and Scout Backus
Photo by Maria Baranova
As a playwright, Charles Cissel is an experimentalist, more concerned with digging deeply into what lies underneath the surface than with using conventional storytelling techniques. He is like an expressionist artist, but instead of using dabs and drips of color, he paints in stabs and slashes of words. Thus it is with Gas, a harrowing journey among the dead and dying, opening tonight at Theatre Row.

The cast of four, plus one talented saxophonist, depict the throwaway lives of those caught up in the one consistent activity of humans: War. These are the universal soldiers, the sacrificed, and in one case, a survivor who is willing to commune solely with his dead comrades. That this survivor, our witness bearer, is identified as an artist suggests a strong personal connection with the playwright, who has dealt with similar subject matter at least once before, in his 2014 play Organic Shrapnel. If you did happen to see that one, know that Gas is both more abstract and more disturbing, commanding our attention even as it intentionally withholds clarity.

With director Felicia Lobo serving as our curator, the die is cast from the moment we enter the theater and take in Christopher and Justin Swader's haunting set design, the bombed-out remains of a children's playground, encased in a tenting of torn and battered material (parachute silk?). That brilliantly conceived visual image thoroughly encapsulates the theme with a jarring perspicuity that haunts the entire experience, indicating without directly specifying the impact of war on the non-combatant civilian population.

As for our soldiers, the play's "cannon fodder," they are Otto (JJ McGlone), the artist who volunteered for service for the experience of it and who will carry the weight of that experience for all of eternity; The Fool, (Scout Backus), also referred to as the Unknown Soldier, who is repeatedly shot and killed over the course of the evening; and Godme (A. J. Ditty), who is God in reality or, at least, in his own mind. They are joined by a civilian (Ta'Neesha Murphy), an entertainer in the Marlene Dietrich mode, who sings bits of popular tunes, ranging from "Begin the Beguine" to "Dream a Little Dream of Me" to the rather more apt "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" An onstage saxophonist (Kevin Kim) is on hand as accompanist, at one point offering up a heart-grabbing rendition of "Taps."

No doubt Gas presents a distinctly surreal vision of a sad part of the story of humanity/inhumanity. Styled as such, it can be a lot to take in, like trying to make meaning out of one of Jackson Pollock's oversize drip paintings at the Museum of Modern Art. But with exceptional design elements in place, including Elizabeth M. Stewart's shadowy lighting, Katja Andreiev's costumes, and Matt Keim's sound design, all evocative of a war zone, the play and its well-acted characters make for a truly memorable experience.

Through June 10, 2023
Theatre Row, Theatre Four, 410 West 42nd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: