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As television-sitcoms are likely to remind us, living with roommates can be rough. So what do you do when the only thing you share in common with them is the bathroom? Sherry Kramer's modern farce Wall of Water, presented by Meredith Ensemble Theatre, is a wild romp through the pits and perils of cohabitation. And while the comedy is often more wacky and wild than clever or concise, Meredith's talented students and sure-handed faculty steer the play toward warm waters.
Meg, played with a cool maturity by Giselle Hernandez, has come upon a frequently-asked 20-something problem: what do you do when you've found the "best apartment in the world" with a roommate from hell? Enter Wendi. Given a warm but manic intensity by Kathleen Myers, we're told that Wendi was once "wonderful" but is now "unwell." Essentially this means she's a high functioning psychopath who steals all your cigarettes (except your last one) and will force you to eat her uncooked pasta flavored with a variety of anti-psychotics. Needless to say, she drives her three roommates bonkers, but the lease is in her name so there's a need to adapt.
The other two roommates seem to have adapted to the level of co-dependency, pampering Wendi's ever growing eccentricities. Judy, played with a bookish charm by Kat Froehlich, goes as far as to (frequently) perform an odd voodoo dance whenever Wendi is convinced her "heart's stopped." Fourth roommate Denice, played with excellent comedic chops by Teia Coley, seems too preoccupied with being the "party girl" to care much about the goings-on in her apartment.
It's a fun and varied cast, and what allows the play to succeed as well as it does is the seriousness the cast gives this not-so-serious comedy. Each character could easily have become a two-dimensional caricature. But these characters are made to feel real and committed to the madcap world they inhabit.
Act II goes full farce, throwing in the varied love interests allowing for the essential mistaken-identity trope to play out. If you look hard enough you can find aspects of classics in Kramer's play. There's a hint of Molière here, some Wilde there, even maybe some Neil Simon. Most noticeably, the play crescendos with a Benny Hill-inspired scene (music and all) as the characters race from room to room in an insane parade. What the script lacks though is the precision and witfull use of language found in so many classics. But what hurts it more are a few out-of-place supernatural elements and an unexplained Deus Ex Machina that forces us to un-suspend our disbelief toward the end.
A description in the preface of the script suggests this is a play with hard-hitting themes on the treatment of the mentally ill in America. But the work never touches on these themes in an overt way, as Wendi's illness seems more an excuse for insane antics than a deep-hitting satire on our mental health system. Wendi's illness is treated as an amusing annoyance, sure, but we never see any of the more troubling and terrifying symptoms of such: paranoia or delusions of grandeur. We are never tasked to take Wendy's character or ailment with much seriousness, so we never do.
Like Seinfeld, Water is a play about nothing. But that's not all a bad thing, and the team at Meredith makes the most of it. That Benny Hill moment I mentioned is well choreographed and executed with door-slamming precision. Director Steven Roten has worked his students to the bone to create a well-oiled machine, and the result is an air-tight comedy.
Jenni Mann Becker has built a modern and functional-feeling set for the characters to run wild in, complete with running water. It feels lived in and helps build a sense of realism that grounds the often far-fetched comedy. The apartment is cut open, dollhouse style, exposing the innards of the NYC "block-wide" abode. We see two bedrooms, the kitchen, and the prominently-featured bathroom. Roten brilliantly uses the space, and the best moments show a collage of action with each room inhabited and active. The lighting design (also by Becker) directs our attention, dimming on rooms as actors go silent and warming on rooms where actors come alive for dialogue.
It's a rarity to see a college ensemble overshadow its source material, but here I left wanting to see Meredith Ensemble tackle a comedy worthy of their talented students and seasoned faculty. And it's a tragedy (not a farce) that American theatre cannot consistently produce great comedies for female actors as frequently as it seems to for its men.
The show continues through Nov. 16. For details, see the sidebar.