Adam Bock

Tipsy in the city: all fall down

Adam Bock's "The Drunken City" at Vertigo gets everyone drunk, then teeters into rueful comedy

“When a character is drunk, he or she will be a truth-teller.”

At least so said Adam Bock, in a program note when his play The Drunken City was produced several years ago at Playwrights Horizons in New York. That sounds like an iffy maxim for real life, but as a dramatic precept it has its virtues. For one thing, as Bock reasoned, he could “write a play where everyone is drunk —that way truth’ll be flying around everywhich everywhere.”

Not all truth is profound, of course, but in Theatre Vertigo’s spirited new production of The Drunken City at the Shoebox Theatre, plenty of it is entertaining.

Beware the city: it's a jungle in there, Photo: Theatre Vertigo

Beware the city: it’s a jungle in there. Photo: Theatre Vertigo

The “city” in question doesn’t seem much like Portland, but Bock and his work have been regular visitors here. He’s taken part in JAW, Portland Center Stage’s play-development festival, three times since 2005, a decade in which PCS also has produced his plays The Thugs, The Receptionist, A Small Fire, and The Typographer’s Dream. Rose Riordan directed all of those, but K.L. Cullom was poised to take the handoff here, having directed Bock’s Five Flights while earning her MFA at the New School for Drama, then assisting Riordan on Typographer’s Dream.

It also feels right that The Drunken City landed with Vertigo rather than PCS; concerned primarily with the romantic misadventures of twentysomethings, the play fits well into the smaller company’s youthful wheelhouse. Even if you — like the majority of local theater audience members — are older than the characters here, the vagaries of love and loss, risk and doubt, remain easy to relate to.

Then again, the danger here is that this territory might easily feel frivolous, no more than a live-action sitcom. The story tosses together two sets of carousing friends — a trio of women out on a bachelorette bar-hop, and a pair of guys, one of them still smarting from a break-up a year ago. Moments after their chance meeting on the sidewalk, sad-sack Frank and bride-to-be Marnie, both slippery with alcohol, slip into a kiss, then another and another, to the increasing alarm of Marnie’s friends. Melissa, who we learn used to date Marnie’s fiance, calls for reinforcement in the form of their gay (and sober) friend Bob, and as they all stagger around and splinter into smaller groupings the necessary interactions and revelations accrue.

Ibsen it ain’t. But Bock has a knack for studding innocuous settings with dark barbs and doomy discord, nodding toward deeper, disquieting implications in the quotidian. Here, that comes in a few forms. Most puzzling is an occasional rumble, as of a train passing nearby, that sends the characters careening across Matthew Jones’ graffiti-splattered set, suddenly more off-balance than sparkly pink cocktails already have made them. (To judge by YouTube clips, the Playwrights Horizons production used a tilting stage; the effect in either case is a momentary, apparently random chaos, a noisy vicissitude of the city.)

More effective are the odd asides uttered (or, in one deliciously creepy case, sung) by Linda, the most tipsy and most anxious of the women. “I drink too much,” she says, then adds softly as a sort of non-non sequitur, “the world scares me.”

It’s Linda who registers the danger, perhaps even the epic quality, of the sorties these suburbanites make. The small town that all six characters, coincidentally, call home, comes to represent the comforts and constrictions of conventional gender roles and relationship rules. The city, by contrast, is a vector of uncertainty, equal parts excitement and unease.  “The city’s like a monster, like a sleeping dragon or some dark creature in the night that cracks open an eye and whispers dark dangerous ideas into your ear,” she says. “It just stares at you and dares you to come closer…It’s fun!”

And, well, it is fun.

Bock doesn’t have anything really incisive to say about the ways we chase or catch or fumble love, but he shows us some of that action playing out in the shadow of its big, inchoate emotional effects. As importantly, he has a sharp ear for sloppy language — the tumbling rhythms, fuzzy logic and choppy dynamics of very casual conversation.

The prospect of watching actors pretend to be drunk, even for a brisk 75 minutes, may give most of us pause, but Cullom draws terrific performances here all-around. Murri Lazaroff-Babin nails Frank’s mix of woundedness and impetuosity, and has the show’s funniest moment with a one-man boy-band dance routine. Holly Wigmore as the edgy, ambivalent Marnie, Nicole Accuardi as the self-righteous, take-charge Melissa, and Shawna Nordman as the quietly off-kilter Linda all navigate rapidly shifting affects with aplomb. Vertigo regulars Tom Mounsey as the even-keeled, warm-hearted Bob and R. David Wyllie, who has some amusing dance moves himself as Frank’s loyal pal Eddie, anchor and balance the whole.

However tenuous their love lives, these characters are folks you’re happy to spend the time around, and they make this trip to “The Drunken City” feel like an evening’s refreshment.


Theatre Vertigo’s The Drunken City continues through November 21 at the Shoebox Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.


Bock to the Futura at Center Stage

Adam Bock's "The Typographer's Dream" is fully engaged with the playwright's idiosyncrasies. So is the audience.

Smith. Shepherd. Mason. Miller. Fisher. Brewer. Historically, as such familiar names attest, occupation and identity were inextricably linked.

These days, however, the idea that we are what we do is open to question. A society that values social mobility (in theory, at least) has to make room for occupational mobility, too. And what about those 128 hours per week (in theory, at least) not spent in the office/shop/factory/whatever? Might someone be more inclined to think of himself as a dad than as a database administrator, as a Blazermaniac rather than as a bus driver? The notion that you should make your passion your work, that you should “follow your bliss,” is appealing but often impractical. Not a lot of tomatoes get sorted under that workforce model.

Still, lots of jobs carry with them an assumption that they say something about the interests, the attitudes, the character of the folks who do them. Take, for example, a typographer, a geographer and a stenographer — the three jobs/characters who take the stage in the latest Adam Bock play at Portland Center Stage, The Typographer’s Dream.

Smith, McLean, and Tyler: my job, my life. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

McLean, Smith (center), and Tyler: my job, my life. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Bock has had an ongoing creative relationship with PCS (in particular, with associate artistic director Rose Riordan) for the past decade, teaming up for the darkly comic hits The Thugs in 2005 and The Receptionist in 2010, as well as several workshop readings and last season’s strangely unsatisfying family drama, A Small Fire.

The Typographer’s Dream returns to the workplace concerns — the occupational preoccupations, if you will — that drove The Thugs and The Receptionist. Yet seasoned PCS followers might be reminded less of previous Bock plays than of Jordan Harrison’s Futura (workshopped at the 2009 JAW festival, then fully staged in 2011), the first half of which is an extended lecture on the history and nuances of typography.

Harrison used that unconventional expositional device to launch a dystopian socio-political thriller. Here, Bock employs a similar approach — a career-day panel discussion — to matters more mundane yet also more personally profound, asking the question, as a PCS blog post puts it, “Are we defined by our work?”

Speaking of work and workplaces, PCS doesn’t maintain an in-house acting company, but the performers here come close to such status. The reliably wonderful Sharonlee McLean, as the typographer, is in her 22nd production here, the playbill notes. She’s again teamed with Laura Faye Smith, as the geographer, who starred alongside her in both The Thugs and The Receptionist. And Kelsey Tyler is a full-time PCS employee, not as a stenographer but as education & community programs director.

Under Riordan’s scrupulous direction, these three have developed deliciously deft comic timing and sharply drawn characters out of what must have seemed amorphous material on the page. The three characters sit at tables amid Daniel Meeker’s purposefully drab scenic and lighting design and tell us about what their job involves, how they became interested in the field, why it matters, and so on. But they speak in fragments, interrupting one another, following no particular sequence of subject. It’s almost as if they’re deliberately ignoring one another, except for a sense of some underlying competition or animosity, as if they’re jostling with non sequiturs instead of elbows.

At one point, sound designer Scott Thorson tosses in a kind of auditory red herring, a loud clang like an anvil dropped into the guts of a piano. Could it presage the sort of sinister forces that were at work in The Thugs and The Receptionist? Or does it just represent a gut feeling of unease that can undermine a sense of purpose in our daily slog?

Eventually we get a feeling for the fissured friendships among the three, with the help of some flashbacks that give a bit of variety to the proceedings and allow Smith a moment of hilariously awkward drunken dancing. The personal backstories do bring us closer to the issue of how closely these characters (and, by extension, we in the audience) identify with their work.

But that theme, like The Typographer’s Dream as a whole, doesn’t play out conclusively. Instead, the play is most fruitful in its little observations about the ways each of the jobs in question shapes our views of truth. The geographer derides the arbitrary nature of national borders as “a line of ink from a Mont Blanc pen at a high level.” The stenographer emphasizes that his court reporting counts as the legal record of what’s been said, yet goes on at length about the challenges of accuracy. The typographer — appropriately the most eloquent of the trio — gives us gems on the symbolic power of design: “Italics can send the reader tilting into a dream world … A letter can be as narrow as a passage through the woods.” (This is, again, reminiscent of Futura, in which Harrison’s typography historian asserts that “Serifs are nostalgic for the movement of hands no longer capable of making them.”)

That aforementioned blog post notes that The Typographer’s Dream is one of Bock’s favorites, and it’s easy to see why: It’s the work of an artist fully engaged with his own idiosyncrasies. That it also is so engaging for the rest of us is a tribute to a job well done.

Review: Lighting ‘A Small Fire’ at Portland Center Stage

Adam Bock creates an abrasive, funny, and tender modern riff on the tale of Job

Think of Emily Bridges as a modern-day Job, if instead of being a “perfect and an upright man,” Job were a hard-boozing, foul-talking, hard-hatted, exasperatingly impatient construction-company boss who’s so tough and abrasive her own daughter can barely stand to be in the same room with her. In Adam Bock’s play A Small Fire, just opened at Portland Center Stage, Emily’s all of that, and like Job, she suffers a series of rapid-fire plagues that come crashing down on her head. Well, unlike Job, who was spared personally while all of his treasures and the people around him were destroyed. Emily’s friends and family feel some of the pain, too, but the brunt of the damage falls squarely on Emily herself.

Lamb and Scott. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Lamb and Scott. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

At first that seems fitting, if a little overboard. After all, Emily’s an unpleasant person, a Type A in overdrive who’s unduly irritated by anything and anyone who gets in her way. But as the play progresses and some mysterious medical condition turns Emily into a bedridden isolationist  – like the famous monkeys, she sees, hears and speaks no evil, or anything else – a little sympathy begins to seep in; a little self-awareness, possibly, on the part of the audience: what if you were locked inside yourself, your mind working clearly but unable to communicate in any way other than a “yes” or “no” squeeze of the hand? Did Emily, like Job, do anything to deserve this? Is “deserving” even part of the equation?

 A Small Fire (the title refers to a mishap in the kitchen, a little thing near the opening of the play that signals disasters of much more moment to come) moves swiftly and compactly, a quick 80 minutes without intermission, and while it seems to spiral downward in that time it also ascends, or resolves: we arrive at a place of better understanding, which is also deeply mysterious and irresolvable. There are subtleties here, little turnings and revelations, and despite the horrible things that happen, a good deal of gentleness holds sway. In a way, Emily stands in for all of us, at least emotionally. Her losses reflect ones we’ve experienced ourselves, or ones we’ve stood around more or less helplessly and watched other people endure.


Interview: Adam Bock on ‘A Small Fire’

The playwright talks about work and play and brushing up for opening night

This weekend Portland Center Stage opens the contemporary play A Small Fire, wherein main character Emily Bridges, a tough-but-fair construction boss, faces sudden debilitation and must accept care from her taciturn husband and her resentful daughter. The rest of the show becomes an intimate exploration of infirmity, identity, and the senses.

In the preview phase, PCS ushered the show’s playwright, Adam Bock, into town from New York to surprise the cast and offer final notes. ArtsWatch sat down with Bock at the Armory to get a feel for his style and hear his take on the show’s big themes. As a bonus, Bock also shared his thoughts on director Rose Riordan, his personal experience that inspired the play, and exclusive news about PCS’s 2014-15 season. Welcome to our conversation.

Adam Bock headshot 960x742

The three plays I read in preparation to talk with you—The Receptionist, The Thugs, and of course the one we’re talking about, A Small Fire—all start in the workplace. Is that a preference for you, and if so, what’s the reason for it?

I think it is, sure. I avoid family stories because…then you’re stuck with a sofa, you know what I mean? It can be hard to make the world of the story bigger than the home. If you start there, it can get stuck in that place.

It seems odd to me that a lot of plays DON’T feature the workplace, considering the impact of work on our lives. I guess I can go ahead and say PCS is planning to do another of my plays, The Typographer’s Dream, next year, and in it I decided to say that the psychology of your job becomes your psyche. So the characters in the story are a typographer, a stenographer, and a geographer, and their issues correspond with their jobs. The typographer is caught between art and business; the stenographer can listen but can’t tell his own story; and the geographer has terrible boundaries, because she’s so aware that the lines are constantly shifting.

The workplace shows what roles we find ourselves in, and what happens when they break or change. Also, how we react if we suddenly find ourselves mismatched to our roles.


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