An ad tycoon’s existential afternoon
Everything ought to be right for Rick Sterling, builder of images, crafter of messages, maker of a president, acquirer of wealth and power.
And yet, John Kishline, as Rick, stares from his office window for a very long time at the outset of his Success, which Theatre MXT opened Friday at Next Act Theatre. Before anyone speaks a word in this all-talk drama, the tension in Kishline’s face and his weary posture tell us that something’s wrong for Rick Sterling.
A series of one-end phone conversations and one-on-one meetings reveal the screws turning up the pressures on him. His lawyer and investment partner needs his complicity in a shaky, barely legal deal. His son has been suspended from college. His wife accuses him of neglect. The president’s people demand to know within 12 hours whether he’s in for the re-election campaign; something smells rotten to him, and he plays Hamlet over the decision. An Egyptian woman shows up to ask him to run her campaign for president of her country. Finally, a brilliant young employee has another offer and threatens to resign.
That full afternoon sounds a little contrived in summary. But Kishline has written the 70-minute one-act to create the impression that none of this is arbitrary, that these strands of fate have been twining around Sterling for some time. We happen to eavesdrop on the day the strands tangle into a knot. Sterling, a regular Houdini his whole life, struggles to slip out of this one. Hence the tension. The temporary immobility causes him to ponder his place in the world — Sterling is, more or less, a liar for hire — and face the existential dread his intense career usually masks.
Kishline the playwright gives very little exposition. He throws us into the middle of conversations, and we must infer the history and in some cases project the outcomes. That makes for economy in storytelling and lots of elliptical dialogue. Usually, that makes the play an engaging mental exercise; sometimes, it’s a little exasperating. Too much of the phone talk runs like this: “Yes.” Pause. “Yes.” Pause. “No.” Pause. “No, no.” Pause. “Yes.” Pause. “Why not?” Pause. “Well, did you tell Jim?”
Sometimes, even Kishline lost patience and hurried through the one-sided dialogue. He left us no time to imagine the other side of the conversation or even realistic time for the imaginary conversant to speak.
The phone calls separate visits from lawyer John Arnold (Edward Morgan, who also directed), Alia Najjeer (Deborah Clifton) and Noor, the employee (Kriti Pant). Kishline cleverly timed the interviews long-medium-short, to create a sense of increasing velocity in a static play. Morgan and Kishline had the most trouble finding rhythm and direction, because their dialogue is the most elevated. They speak in existential philosophical aphorisms for quite some time before getting down to hard business. A little trimming on the front end and a more conversational, as opposed to oratorical, delivery would help ground the scene in reality.
Kishline’s Sterling sees a flash of his younger self in her. He finds no nostalgia or redemption in that; he finds opportunity and a way out of his paralysis. He makes a bold decision that cuts through the tangle and brings relief. There is work to do; Sterling can stop thinking for a while.
Success, which Kishline wrote in 1992 and revised extensively for this revival, runs through April 1 at Next Act Theatre. For tickets and scheduling, visit Next Act’s website or call 414 278-0765. For more on the play, visit Theatre MXT’s site.