After last spring's excellent Live from the Surface of the Moon, writer-director Max Baker returns to The Wild Project in the East Village with his new play, Because Me. Live from the Surface of the Moon focused on a small group of friends navigating America’' transition from the '60s into the '70s, and Because Me similarly examines a small network of individuals in the context of their historical moment; but here that moment is our present. Whereas Baker's previous play included a significant New Year's Eve, its counterpart threshold here is more personal: protagonist Else's looming 30th birthday.
Else (Alice Johnson) works at Trader Joe's while she, like many before her, pursues an art career in New York City, repurposing things like cardboard boxes or bin lids as her canvases. We meet Else as her friends, voluble self-styled deep-thinker Roman (Arthur Kriklivy) and taciturn goth Liv (Lisa Jill Anderson, a veteran of Live from the Surface of the Moon), and put-together professional sister, Celia (Samantha Strelitz), help her to move into her first solo apartment, a studio in a questionable neighborhood.
This moving-in scene introduces some of the play's major themes, particularly its sense of eroding time and the search for purpose in the face of mortality. Roman's discussion there of the existential state of goldfish in a bowl is echoed late in the play by a remark that living in the same room for 40 years, as the previous tenant of Else's apartment did, seems unimaginable. Because Me is also concerned, relatedly, with the ideas of reward and punishment. As Else laments at one point, she is not a bad person, but nothing ever seems to work out for her. She does lack the competitive aggression that is seemingly necessary for a world in which the road to success runs through social media synergy and self-promotion. She also tends to retreat from difficult situations in her personal life, such as when she pretends, against her friends' protests, that no one is home when she wants to avoid her neighbor Kyle (Emmanuel Elpenord). Else's figurative entrapment, her stagnation, extends to the other characters as well. Outwardly successful Celia is in a bad relationship that she knows will not change and feels like a failure because she doesn't know how to take the next right steps in that one area of her life. Roman can't even be trusted around a blender but wants to climb a towering Russian mountain, the kind of quest that is as much a privileged white cliché as being a starving artist in NY. Else's photographer friend Mimi (Eve Marie Mugar) professes expertise in personal branding and networking, but only ends up annoying good contact Celia and achieves about as much success as Else herself. Liv's snark helps to maintain an opacity about her personal life outside of her roles as game night partner and drinking buddy. Kyle, we find out, is literally trapped for reasons that open up a new perspective on his character late in the proceedings.
To the play's benefit, none of these characters is a hero or villain; all are complex and none is a direct mouthpiece for the author. Kyle, who provides a more out-there version of Roman’s philosophizing, for example, can be pushy and intrusive, and does some pretty questionable things, but he also puts forth some legitimate grievances against Else when they eventually have a fight. Even though Roman delivers a set-piece tirade against consumerism and the contemporary generation's false sense of uniqueness, he is heedless of the injury that his words cause his friends, and the fact that he often comes across like a college student who can’t wait to share the profound ideas he has discovered (but probably won't act on) somewhat undermines the authority of his critique.
Baker has a talent, on display in Because Me as in Live from the Surface of the Moon, for suggesting an organic depth to his characters' relationships. The cast of Because Me do fantastic work creating the nuances both of these relationships and of their individual characters. Alice Johnson delivers an outstanding performance as the epicenter of the production, and Ricki Lyneé deserves mention for her relatively brief and reserved but emotionally weighted appearance as Deena, the granddaughter of the apartment’s previous tenant. Because Me is not plot-heavy; instead, it tells its story through a succession of often short scenes that function like snapshots of a period in a life that is both an urban Millennial stereotype and richly specific. Because Me operates through an unpredictable accumulation of details, presented without editorializing, and those moments add up to an engrossing night of theater. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler