This review of Max Baker's The Conspiracists at The IRT Theater was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Written & Directed by Max Baker
The IRT Theater
154 Christopher Street, Suite 3-B
New York, New York 10014
What would happen if you put a bunch of crazy conspiracy theorists in a church basement and they disagreed on the true conspiracy? Absurdity perhaps and The Conspiracists, a quirky, funny, and surprisingly dark play that showcases playwright Max Baker's ability to create tangibly deep characterizations. This helped to provide for a uniqueness to the experience that a viewer may be interested in for just the experience. However, despite the upside of a few laughs, the intriguing concept falls prey to awkward arguments and a lack of cohesive direction which can create a lot of confusion. If you try to follow the plot, then you may miss the jokes. The stilted narrative thread follows a strange sequence of events through three alternate realities (also different acts of the play). What's unclear is whether the actions in one reality always affect the other realities or if the sequences are happening simultaneously. The true boon, however, is that the play helps us to reflect upon different aspects of our own lives and circumstances to deconstruct what conspiracy theories truly are.
Each act starts out the same way. Win, played by Ian Poake and the leader of the Conspiracy Support Group, enters in a flurry and says, "Hi" to Jo (Ricki Lynee), who is sitting in a chair preparing an experiment. Win sets up the room and says a few things like, "I never remember how many chairs to set up" even though we quickly learn there are only five returning members of the support group. He is followed by Emmett (Arthur Kriklivy) and Dee Dee (Sofiya Cheyenne). After Emmett changes his chair out due to a mark on the one Win set up for him despite there being a plethora of available chairs, Dee Dee arrives spouting a spree of complaints. Why didn't Emmett hold the door? Where is her prayer stool, which she uses to place her feet? Once they've all sat down, Jo's alarm goes off and the chaos ensues. Jo is about to conduct an experiment at the same time the Hadron Collider in Switzerland will force a collision between sub-atomic particles. She places a favorite doll of hers in a suitcase, hooks it up to a phone, and dictates this to a silver tape recorder noting that the other three attendees are "witnesses." At this point, things deviate from scene to scene.
In the first act, actress Lisa Jill Anderson appears as a neurotic schizophrenic named Madonna, who believes she can talk to inanimate objects by tapping into their "feelings." Lisa absolutely stuns the audience with an exceptional demonstration of crazy. At first, she is mild-mannered and compliant to the rules of the group, but when Brooke (played by Alice Johnson) begins to complain about being locked in the bathroom, Madonna goes insane believing she is being talked to by a despondent ghost. She chants that she is the Goddess Madonna while performing a dance with a small statue that looked like a Golden Globe Award. The other characters are as stunned as we are and in attempting to calm Madonna down, we get some pretty funny lines about dealing with the mentally unstable. This is coming from Conspiracy Theorists who believe Lizard people control the world and that we are living in a simulation of our own advanced race. I remember thinking to myself, "O.K., what just happened and where do we go from here?"
In the second and third act, Lisa appears as two different versions of the newcomer to the support group - Steve, a standoffish conspiracy theorist expert, and Hilda, a bubbly girlfriend of Emmett he met through an online dating app. Each of these characters is so different from the meek Madonna that it's incredible to think Lisa was able to prepare to perform three roles in one. In fact, while Lisa's performance was above noteworthy, all the actors seemed to be really well cast for their parts. I found Lisa's performance of Steve in the second act particularly funny and dark. She comments on various aspects of conspiracy theories like a pseudo expert and eventually suggests that "hope" may be the true conspiracy. Each act definitely takes a unique spin on the quest for answers as the conspiracy theorists slowly unravel and retreat into their own ideas.
While Lisa demands a lot of attention, she also plays catalyst to how the discussion of the group develops. Once her character enters, the group's discussion takes off. Unfortunately, for Win, and fortunately for the audience, Hilda (3rd act Lisa), presses him to seek what he really wants. This happens to be Brooke, who he has been harboring a crush for. He gives an engaging but desperate confession of love, and she, of course, denies his pathetic overture. It's one of the funniest moments of the play and starkly real. This soliloquy-like confession of love tops off a strong performance by Ian Poake. Sofiya Cheyenne, Dee Dee, also had a strong performance delivering some ridiculous lines without even the hint of a smile like her description of our real-life Presidential election as being a race between "a Reptilian Shape-Shifter" and a "Snake-Oil Salesman." Without leaving the church basement, the group seems to cover almost all of the dominant conspiracies and even Santa isn't safe from the targeting. In addition, while there is no consistent narrative thread, the play returns to Jo's experiment after the discussions between each character. She ends the act by pulling out what has become of the doll in the box leaving us guessing whether actions in this reality or the next affected the contents.
At times this play was emotionally confronting such as when Steve (Lisa Anderson) addresses the pointlessness of existence. Often these revelations are slightly disturbing. Thankfully, the dark, irreverent humor did not dip into the obscene or grow to the point of overwhelming despair. Although, I do wonder if overwhelming despair would have given the play a more substantial feeling. Overall, I did like the play and would suggest it to a friend looking for weird or who is tired of watching reruns of a show that follows the Friends model. On the negative side, the play did seem like one of those stories wherein the end, the meaning is that there is no meaning. Whoa, so profound. Still, it was funny and the actors executed their lines well.
I'm a huge fan of dark humor, and if you admire amusingly frank and sometimes uncomfortable comedy like that seen in South Park and the Fallout series games, then you'll probably enjoy The Conspiracists. Still, it wasn't so funny that my sides were splitting, and sometimes I was the only one chuckling at a particularly dark revelation of the absurdity of the search for meaning in things or life. If that is your thing, then this play if for you. If not, I'd suggest rethinking your decision to see The Conspiracists, which runs at The IRT Theater through May 7, 2017. Tickets can be purchased at www.stablecableabco.org for $18.00 or at the door for $20.00.