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Two Couples on the Verge in ‘Subprime’

Beck Lee’s compelling new play effectively documents and dissects the death throes of two couples in the subprime of their lives and in doing so provides us with a disturbing roadmap to marital dissolution.

The setting is a mid-town Manhattan hotel in the summer of 2008 just as the financial crisis is taking shape. Two 30-something couples from Minnesota (Sydney and Brian Swenson, and Kurt and Cartright Crocker-Kelly) who have been friends for over a year are spending an alcohol fueled weekend together.  TV news reports describing the beginnings of the 2008 financial crisis occasionally drone in the background and serve as metaphor for the marital meltdowns that hold center stage in this play.

It becomes clear that Sydney and Brian are facing financial problems of their own as their credit cards are refused by the hotel. Sydney becomes increasingly critical of her spouse as the story develops, referring to him as a hopeless loser. After more rounds of vodka tensions develop and sexual frustration lurks in the background.

Midway through the play enters Ray, the hotel waiter and most normal of the five characters, initially adding a circle of light into the developing story by providing what passes for comic relief in this dark comedy, Ray inevitably gets drawn into the couples’ angst when it becomes clear that Cartright is a closet cougar with a thing for younger men as she flirts shamelessly with Ray and invites him to come and see her sometime.  Which he does eventually, while her husband Kurt is out with Brian looking to score some coke from a drug dealer recommended by Ray.  Things do not go well of course, this being a dark comedy, as Brian returns later in a panic describing how Kurt managed to get busted after his score and was hauled away by hordes of plain clothes police who “came out of nowhere”.

During the men’s absence, Cartright has confided to Sydney that she and Kurt both have their own private little ‘hobbies’. Hers is having casual sex with younger men.  Kurt’s is a little stranger. He likes to party with a group of guys who meet in a garage to act out historical battles with toy soldiers – harmless enough except they are completely naked and the leader of the losing side is tied down onto a bench and buggered by the winners. Just boys being naked boys by the standards of these hopelessly maladjusted couples.

While Sydney appears in many ways to be the most complex and least damaged of the four characters, she is deeply troubled and a deep anger simmers not far beneath a calmer, lighter exterior. In a fit of pique no doubt worsened by a substantial intake of vodka, she demeans Brian even further in front of Ray by confessing that she has been deceiving him: while he thought they were trying to conceive their second child, she had been taking birth control pills the whole time. Brian flies into a rage, calls her a bitch and a cunt, and begins to strangle her. Ray breaks up the violence by braining Brian into unconsciousness with a handy serving tray. Brian spends the remainder of the play on the floor. The play ends as Sydney continues to kick and berate Kurt while Cartright desperately tries to find out what precinct her husband is being held in. Above but not quite apart from it all, a bemused and somewhat befuddled Ray pays witness to the human comedy playing out before him within the four walls of a Manhattan hotel room.

The play is tightly directed by Jason Jacobs who succeeds in driving the story towards its inevitable conclusion without letdown or dead spots.  The east coast premiere of Beck’s new work on Thursday, June 8 at the Jersey City Theater Center is still a work in progress but shows much promise.

The Characters:

Sydney Swenson played by Sarah Street
Brian Swenson played by John Long
Kurt Crocker-Kelly played by Taylor C. Hays
Cartright Crocker-Kellyplayed by Jennifer Laine Williams
Ray (the hotel waiter) played by Laris Macario

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Jon Hill

Still unable to decide what he wants to be when he grows up, Jon Hill is a quant with a Ph. D. in mathematical genetics, and is an authority on something called model risk management. By night Jon haunts jazz clubs, art museums, theater, cinema—he became an ardent film buff since he saw Federico Fellini’s “8 ½”. Jon lives in New Jersey with two cats and two sports cars.