For some reason, science fiction is always hard to pull off on stage. It lends itself better to print (where the reader's imagination can fill in the blanks) or film (where producers can spend millions on up-to-the-minute special effects). Exposition - the playwright's curse - is hard, too, since there's a whole alternative universe to be explained before any dramatic action can get underway.
These are the pitfalls. Does Defrost leap over them with a single bound? Hardly, but it makes a noble attempt, with some amusing moments along the way.
The story concerns two male scientists and a female army major holed up in a bunker after a nuclear attack. They are in charge of keeping samples of the biosphere in deep freeze, including large numbers of plants and animals - from monkeys to bacteria. Oh, and add to that list the number-one guest, the President of the United States.
Ismene (Molly McMillan), the major, is all business, the possessor of the only gun and of the security codes to the front door, the President, and the computer. She is a true alpha female, brainy and ready to reproduce. Preston (Eric Bryant), a crack cryogenics expert, is her lover and is definitely the alpha male - though he's always getting beaten at chess by Davis (Mark Schulte), a half-blind biologist (he looked at a nuclear fireball). All three actors were well-cast in their somewhat meager roles and didn't disappoint. John Pero, as the President ("call me Bob!"), when woken from the deep freeze for a scene or two, showed all the sleazy bonhomie of a born politician trying to adjust to an unpleasant new reality.
The story concerns the triangular power-struggle among the three main characters. Both men have something to hide: Preston that he's sterile, a fact he hides from Ismene because he wants her to want to have sex until she gets pregnant, and Davis that he's in touch via the intercom with a group of survivors camped out in the cave upstairs - including his sister Dorothy. Davis manipulates the situation until the President has been revived and is about to give up his security code, so that Davis can open the door, at which point Ismene's gun goes off, as guns in the theatre tend to do.
This brief play is a clever exercise in peel-the-onion motivation, with machine-gun dialog revealing the next layer of duplicity, but it doesn't go much deeper than that. (And sometimes the revelation muddies the waters more than it clarifies them.) Davis is the only character who seems to have roots in the outside world. The result is an exercise in playwriting technique. Every good play should be, but the converse isn't always true.
Nancy Rogers directed the play at a good clip and made as much of the (sometimes confusing) story points as could be hoped for.
The set fulfilled the modest demands of the script, being that of a nondescript basement. The sound all seemed to come from one speaker behind the audience, a bit disconcerting when effects (like a toilet) were supposed to come from backstage, or when Dorothy could be heard simultaneously over the speaker and reading her lines from backstage (though the end-of-the-end-of-the-world sound effects were effective). The lighting, while appropriately bland, was so abrupt at times as to call attention to itself rather than unobtrusively suggest a mood. (Good use was made of red lights when the alarms went off.)
Lighting: 1/Sound: 0
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Copyright 1999 John Chatterton