Death spiral

The Ninth Circle

By Edward Musto
45th Street Theatre
354 West 45th St. (206-1515)
Equity showcase (closes Apr. 6)
Review by Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen

In Dante's Inferno, the Ninth Circle is the very depths of Hell where Satan presides over the worst offenders. Some may think this a rather drastic analogy for the end of the Seventies (fashion police excepted), but Edward Musto's new play makes a strong case, showing the last gasp of the permissive society before the Reagan era.

Stuck in a desk-job he despises, lacking ambition and saddled with a wife he resents, Tom Used (a suitably jaded, anti-heroic Gene Forman) fills the void with casual sex. The Ninth Circle follows him from early evening until dawn on Election Night 1980, moving through a wide range of social settings from a corporate dinner to a cheap hotel, a porn theatre, the ominously named Inferno nightclub, and the discomfort of his own home. But while the story is ostensibly that of one man's free fall, what we are actually offered is a kaleidoscopic view of society hungry for change. When Tom admits that he is "all fucked out" and "too tired to do anything," it is the death knell of a hedonistic age. In this first production, this mood was echoed in Rick Juliano's set (a Manhattan skyline of distorted skyscrapers) and Michael Abrams's lighting, especially effective in evoking dingy locales.

Through Tom's story , Musto systematically sets up key elements of the coming decade (AIDS, women in business, corporate culture, commercial art). While this broad sweep makes for an interesting overview, the individual issues are sometimes dealt with rather perfunctorily: "I just want to be one of the boys" said a corporate climber (Sarah Schoenberg), opening and closing a big can of worms in one sentence. More troubling was Julio (Rodrigo Lopresti), the Hispanic mailroom employee who resented his low status but feared promotion. Vain and lazy, a liar and a cheat, he justified Tom's epithet of the "cream of the crap," undermining his own (valid) complaints of racism in the company by giving the bosses plenty of other reasons to disrespect him. While funny and well-acted, Lopresti's swaggering, restless, comic interpretation (together with the jaunty dialogue) ultimately sidestepped legitimate and more complex questions around corporate racism, playing into the ethnic stereotypes of the employers.

These quibbles were, however, offset by the theatrical power of the piece -- in several ways. First, the reminder of how far New York has (and hasn't) changed since the previous Bush took office. Second, Musto's sharp writing - comic, pithy, awkward, and threatening in turn. Third, Tom Herman's snappy, unsentimental direction, which kept the piece moving. And fourth, the cast who successfully inhabited a varied set of smaller roles, often with very limited stage time. (Highlights included Andrea Maybaum as Alley, the first-grade teacher settling for sex in all the wrong places; Anne Rutter as Tom's exasperated, emotionally torn assistant Jane; Beth Beyer as the wife who grew up faster than her husband; and Jay Greenberg as the jittery, seedy manager of the porn theatre.) Taken together, these elements did not recreate the hell of Dante's Ninth Circle; however, their evocation of human beings cut adrift from each other and from themselves offered a powerful contemporary parallel that (unfortunately) made this show much more than just a historical snapshot.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 1
Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2002 Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen