Review of Touch at Yale Cabaret Toni Press-Coffman’s Touch, featured as Cab 5 at the Yale Cabaret, and directed by Elijah Martinez, with a cast of second-year actors in the YSD program, is a play about connecting with others. Its dominant figure is the cosmos and how we are a part of it, and, thus, how the stars are a part of us. This idea has a compelling logic for Kyle (Jonathan Majors), an astronomer who has lost his beloved wife Zoe. Zoe, he tells us, believed in astrology and urged him to add a spiritual dimension to his contemplation of the heavens. For Kyle, that dimension is provided by the verses of John Keats—“the only poet,” Kyle tells us—but we might also say that the entire play is a presentation of Kyle’s effort to find a spiritual dimension in the universe that he can accept.
The dimension comes to him from other people ultimately, and the play mainly uses other characters as catalysts for Kyle’s basic predicament. That predicament is rendered well, in verbal detail, by having Kyle begin the play by addressing the audience in a monologue that goes on for what could be called the entire first act. In that time we learn that Kyle was a physics nerd in high school who met his future wife when she wandered by accident into the wrong classroom. She then became reason enough to be late to class—an astounding discovery for a guy who seems to think more of distant Betelgeuse than of anyone in his immediate orbit. Majors gives Kyle a fast, emphatic delivery, with quirky beats and pauses that show us how easily he might lapse back into his own mind and how much effort it takes to express his enthusiasms. One of his greatest enthusiasms is for Zoe, who he seems to regard as both a miracle and a force of nature. She’s quirky, popular, dresses flamboyantly, and, for some reason he can’t fathom, loves him. All well and good.
So of course tragedy strikes—in the form of an ill-advised solo trip to the market by Zoe. Since we never hear the exact details of the crime that causes her death, we might wonder if there’s more to the story, on Zoe’s side. Was their marriage only what Kyle says it was? That question doesn’t seem to interest Press-Coffman, so instead we get dramatic action when the investigation begins, including the participation of Kyle’s buddy since high school, Bennie (Chris Ghaffari), an engaging “average Joe” type who is allegedly also a science nerd who goes into medicine (though that part is rather hard to believe), and of Zoe’s sister, Serena (Melanie Field) who is anything but serene. She hurls obscenities at the cops, rags on Kyle for shutting her and her family out of his life after Zoe’s disappearance, and for seeking out solace, after Zoe’s dead body is discovered, with a local prostitute—the kind that charges more than $25.
As Kathleen, the cheerful street-walker, Jenelle Chu livens up Kyle’s life and the play and is instrumental for Act 2, “coping with the death of Zoe.” For Kyle, that process has to include sex with a woman if only to drown out the absence of Zoe and the nature of her death. Press-Coffman seems deliberately to place before us—though to what end?—the various forms of sex: marital, as Kyle recalls his honeymoon in New York with Zoe; consensual paid transaction with matter-of-fact Kathleen; rape (off-stage); and as an expression of the discovery of love—or at least deep need—between Bennie and Serena.
The latter pairing makes for a comically awkward ‘why are you fucking my sister-in-law?’ ‘why are you fucking a prostitute?’ scene that quickly gets resolved, leading to Act 3, where closure comes by way of Kyle narrating his meeting with Zoe’s two incarcerated killers. As a memory, the scene is again only what Kyle tells us—and he doesn’t tell us much. But all’s well that ends well because Kyle learns to hope again and finally gets to see that green flash in the sky. As another poet might say (in the voice of a schemer): “the fault is not in our stars but in us.” The play seems to want us to accept a possibly benign universe despite our human failings and griefs, but the ghostly figure of a woman vividly recalled who we never hear or see may beckon to an alternate universe Press-Coffman doesn’t seem to imagine we’ll imagine.
The success of Touch depends on how we take to Kyle, our guide to the story and to his feelings and experiences. Jonathan Major makes him likeable but—as Serena’s favorite poet T.S. Eliot might say—a bit obtuse. Press-Coffman almost makes you believe nothing ultimately separates an astronomer from a prostitute in terms of speech and affective relations, and maybe that’s true. It’s certainly easier to believe when all the characters tend to talk alike—but for Bennie, struggling with words like “denigrate.”
The Cab production uses a wonderful projection backdrop of skies and stars, subtly integrating that with the lighting (all the work of Joey “The Wizard” Moro) to create an ongoing sense of a surrounding cosmos, so important to Kyle, who never is not thinking about the stars. Sound too is highly effective and it’s a pity that Grier Coleman’s costumes never get to include any of Zoe’s fabled hats. Director Martinez has a strong sense of how to make what can seem a rather static play move about and inhabit space, and makes as much of the actors’ physical energy—particularly Field’s and Majors’—as possible.
Viewers who also saw the current Yale Rep production of Arcadia may find extra enjoyment in hearing Byron declared “an oaf” by Kyle, as Bennie recites the very same verse Bernard recites in Stoppard’s play. How’s that for synchronicity?
Touch By Toni-Press-Coffman Directed by Elijah Martinez
Dramaturg: Taylor Barfield; Sets: Izmir Ickbal; Costumes: Grier Coleman; Lights & Projections: Joey Moro; Sound: Ian Scot; Stage Manager: Emily DeNardo; Technical Directors: Kenyth Thomason, Nick Vogelpohl; Production Manager: James Lanius III; Producer : Sarah Williams
Yale Cabaret October 23-25, 2014