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I'm Revolting

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 5, 2022

Laura Esterman, Patrick Vaill, Glenn Fitzgerald, Emily Cass McDonnell, Peter Gerety, and Alicia Pilgrim
Photo by Ahron R. Foster
Whatever playwright Gracie Gardner intends by the title of her play I'm Revolting, opening tonight at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater, multiple meanings are there for interpretation. But there arguably is only one truly revolting character among those gathered in the waiting room of an outpatient surgical suite in a cancer hospital in New York City. Not the famous cancer hospital, but, as one of the patients puts it, the one that gets "three stars on Yelp."

It is a fairly sparse set Marsha Ginsberg has designed, but a familiar one for anyone who has had to sit for any length of time in a medical waiting room. There are six chairs spread across the stage, not particularly comfortable ones by the look of them. They are occupied by four skin cancer patients and an assortment of dutiful family members, ostensibly there to lend their support.

The wait will be a long one. Treatment consists of a surgical procedure that involves excising slices of the affected skin and examining them under the microscope while the patient waits for the results. If it appears that all the cancerous area has been successfully removed, the patient is free to go. If not, they stay for another round.

Thus it is with the ones we meet while they await their pathology results. There is the anxious and quite possibly depressed Toby (Patrick Vaill), who is sitting with his mother Paula (Laura Esterman), a "new age" woman who believes the body is meant to heal itself and who, to bolster her stance, pulls out a set of singing bowls and starts them vibrating. There is Clyde (Peter Gerety), the fatalist of the bunch, who has come alone on what has become an annual pilgrimage. There is a married couple, Liane (Emily Cass McDonnell), whose cancerous condition is quite serious, and her husband Jordan (Glenn Fitzgerald); with them, the tension is high from the start and gets uglier through the performance.

Patrice Johnson Chevannes and Bartley Booz
Photo by Ahron R. Foster
The youngest of the group is 19-year-old Reggie (Alicia Pilgrim), whose bandaged nose is a source of great concern to her. "Am I going to have a nose at all? I'm thinking Voldemort," she remarks in one example of the gallows humor the characters engage in to ease the tension. Reggie is there with her sister Anna (Gabby Beans), who, though trying to be helpful, is on her phone much of the time and actually walks out in order to deal with some work problem; she says her boss has told her he wouldn't care if it was she who had cancer, she has to come in to the office.

Because of the long wait from surgery until they can leave, and with so little else to distract them (a snack machine and, for some reason, a wall of mirrors, as if anyone with skin cancer would want to be surrounded by mirrors), they talk among themselves. Strangers to each other with much on their minds, their conversations are, realistically, without much depth, just something to kill the time. At the performance I attended, some of these interactions were difficult to hear, either due to insufficient vocal projection or possibly intentionally, since we in the audience are essentially eavesdropping, just as the characters are forced to be privy to each other's conversations. It's a medical waiting room. Don't be looking for privacy here.

It is a real challenge to take a situation like this, one that due to its nature automatically carries a built-in tension, and make it seem real without going all melodramatic. For this success, we can give credit to the uniformly strong ensemble of actors and to director Knud Adams. But beyond the small talk and throwaway jokes, there is something scarily real that is made clear by the presence of two more characters. One is the attending physician, Denise (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), who is calm, steady, and seemingly very supportive of the patients when she interacts with them, even if she is a little too sure of herself as the person in charge. The other is Jonathan (Bartley Booz), her intern, who is doing some of the surgery under her supervision. Jonathan's bedside manner is clumsy at best, as is his ability to follow protocols and exacting procedures. As it turns out, the most significant turn of the plot happens after all the patients have gone, and the two of them debrief over the day.

In the end, it is the overall subject matter that gives the play its heft. The individual patients are, in some ways, interchangeable. But the situation they are dealing with is something any of us might face. I know from personal experience, having sat in one of those uncomfortable chairs myself. I'm told my own skin cancer has been fully eliminated, but, like the characters in the play, I will always wonder if it will return.

I'm Revolting
Through October 16, 2022
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater, 336 W 20th St, New York
Tickets online and current performance schedule: