Navigating a night journey

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Zoë Pike, left, Leah Brewer and Matt Socci portray young Durangoans in Danny Mitarotondo’s “Sun and Room” at Fort Lewis College.

By Judith Reynolds
Special to the Herald

Leah and Zoë are best friends. Matt is an outlier invited by Zoë to Leah’s party, which she does not want to turn into “another YouTube party.”

It doesn’t, but awkward attempts to have a good time are constantly penetrated by cellphone calls, texting, pizza orders, music embedded in computer playlists, doorbells, beer, shots and, for starters, the barely audible hum of a clothes dryer.

“Sun and Room” is a one-act play by Danny Mitarotondo that opens tonight at Fort Lewis College.

Leah’s Durango apartment is as bleak as an Edward Hopper painting with a futon, bureau, desk and a concrete window well that lets in late-afternoon light. When the play begins, all you hear is a quiet humming. Like a musical overture that starts with a barely audible sound, an ordinary dryer introduces a sonic motif that launches a remarkable new work.

The musical reference and its low key entry isn’t a stretch. Mitarotondo, an emerging New York playwright, refers to his script as a score. Much has been made of his innovative format. If you look at his text, it reads horizontally. Actors lines, lighting elements (particularly the fading sun) and sounds like the dryer read entirely across pages. It looks like a conductor’s orchestral score.

Much has been made of Mitarotondo’s new format, but what counts is what happens in a live production. The action takes place overnight. There are no odd breaks, no fantasies or flashbacks except in dialogue. Although billed as a dark comedy, it plays like a tense realistic drama. The characters are idiosyncratic but not quirky. The student universe they inhabit is depicted with insight, an ear for the way young people talk today, and deep affection.

The Theatre Department at FLC commissioned Mitarotondo to create the play. He earned a bachelor’s degree in theatre and literature from New York University and holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in playwriting from Columbia. At 27, he’s close to the age of his characters.

Last summer, Mitarotondo initiated a new process. He interviewed the three student actors who appear in the production: Leah Brewer plays Leah Hunter; Matthew Socci is Matt, and Zoë Pike creates Zoë, a high-energy party girl who constantly ups the stakes until morning.

Listening to the pitch, timbre, pace and rhythmic patterns of the FLC students, Mitarotondo had the tools to write dialogue that sounded true. But the taped interviews did not dictate the content, he said in an interview earlier this week. The storyline came from recollections of his own youth, he said. Student parties are a rich source for drama, particularly a triangle of two friends and an outsider.

Another key to “Sun and Room,” Mitarotondo said, came from a chance visit to the Whitney Museum in New York. He saw an exhibition of paintings by the American realist, Edward Hopper.

“People have said his works are about loneliness, but I don’t agree. There’s so much more there,” he said.

A late Hopper painting, the 1963 “Sun in an Empty Room,” gave him pause, Mitarotondo said. It stayed with him and inspired the idea of an overnight party with the sun as a character. The painting also suggested a theme he’s been interested in, he said: leaving – and what that means for everyone involved. In the play, Leah has been thinking about a form of leaving, transferring to another college, not uncommon among college students.

Realism as a theatrical style is perhaps the most difficult to appear effortless, and Brewer, Socci and Pike have polished their skills well. Under professor Ginny Davis’ direction, the student actors are more than credible. “Sun and Room” is for mature audiences only. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.

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