Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The story, set in 2022, is framed by revelatory and thoughtful monologues from Abby Soza (Victoria Cartagena), a writer's assistant who (like Camblin) identifies herself by the pronouns she/they–essentially a gofer who documents the zigzagged conversations of a team of writers who are brainstorming ideas for a new series. I suspect such rooms are pressure cookers even when working on a well-established TV series, but in Wrecking Ball the heat starts out on high, with three days to develop a new concept, and gets turned up even hotter as the day unfolds with an overnight deadline.
The team is led by a veteran showrunner, Danny Rubenstein (played with pushy energy by Jeremy Dubin), a frenetic guy in his early 50s with gray hair who dresses like a skater punk with flashy red-and-white Air Jordan high-tops. He vacillates between being a self-proclaimed industry legend, everybody's friend, and their stern taskmaster, more than once bringing a team member to tears. He doesn't manage the balance well, and when he learns that a former creative partner is the target of an anonymous #MeToo accusation, he becomes unhinged and reveals a sexist side that's been well covered in the past.
Danny struggles to manage a fractious team whose members are prone to be immersed in the social stratification of their job descriptions. Meg Klineman (Dale Hodges) is a sharp-tongued 70-year-old veteran of British TV who's also a germaphobe. Tyson Moore (Darnell Pierre Benjamin) is Black, full of himself, and openly, overtly gay. Chloe Mason (Sara Mackie) is white, middle-aged, and eager to please; she enters in a sweaty running suit and spends much of her time sitting on a bouncy exercise ball. Anita (Burgess Byrd), a no-nonsense, exceedingly smart Black woman, has some history with Danny and sees herself as his peer who needs to be managed. Arriving late is Seth Weiner (Patrick Earl Pierce), neurotic and sensitive, sneezing and grieving over his mortally ill dog.
Giving focus to this menagerie is Danny's chore: He hopes to pull from them a concept inspired by a classic play, Lanford Wilson's The Hot L Baltimore, that inspired a one-season 1975 sitcom produced by Norman Lear. It portrayed a group of misfits living in a Baltimore hotel set for demolition. That's loosely the framework Danny wants his to team to pursue, and it's also the notion playwright Camblin has drafted with this contentious room full of television writers. (There's even a scene with the writers trying to enact latter-day equivalents to the play's characters.) Collaboration is hard to come by, and conflict is more the order of the day, in many ways playing out among these characters' contemporary divides over racism, sexism, ageism and classism. We eventually learn that Abby has a motive well beyond an ambitious desire to break into the industry, an undercurrent that drives the play's final scenes.
There's a lot of freight in Camblin's script, which also name drops numerous sitcom references that evoke laughs from audience members of a certain age. So it's entertaining, but the ongoing combat between characters makes it difficult to imagine how this group of divergent personalities and perspectives could ever truly be jointly successful. Perhaps that's part of Camblin's point, if one wishes to imagine that these people represent the divergent populations fueling divisive life in 21st century America. The twist wreaked by Abby's revelation and Danny's final meltdown suggests we're not very close to a resolution–aside from a swift finale presenting Abby's imagined sitcom reboot that's amusing and warmhearted but feels tacked on.
All in all, this production of Wrecking Ball feels a tad loose, perhaps to be expected of a new work that hasn't been thoroughly workshopped. Camblin is certainly a promising writer, and I hope we'll see more from her. It's worth noting that Cincy Shakes sees fostering new works as a way to keep the theatrical canon vibrant. "After all," the classic theatre company explains in a program note, "Shakespeare had to start as a young playwright fighting for his voice to be heard." I believe that's precisely what Camblin is doing.
Wrecking Ball runs through October 28, 2023, at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, 1195 Elm Street, Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit cincyshakes.com or call 513-381-2273.