Review: In "Or, An Astronaut Play," Failing Upward Takes on Astronomical Proportions

Or, An Astronaut Play

Written by Johnny G. Lloyd

Directed by William Steinberger

Presented by Inversion Theatre at The Tank

312 W. 36th St., Manhattan, NYC

January 4-26, 2020

Harrison Unger and Caturah Brown. Photo by Skye Morse-Hodgson
Many people mess around on the internet while at work. For few of these people, presumably, does such innocuous time-wasting precipitate a rapid major life change. In playwright Johnny G. Lloyd's Or, An Astronaut Play, making its world premiere at The Tank, however, Tom (Harrison Unger) is one of these few—although in most ways he is also, significantly to the play's concerns, resolutely typical.

Twenty-seven year-old Tom lives with his girlfriend Claire (Tay Bass). He also works with her at a snack food company, and the play opens with them at the office, Claire requesting access to a spreadsheet from Tom, and Tom requesting help with an online quiz from Claire. The quiz tells Tom that his ideal career is astronaut, and Tom takes this result immediately to heart. In no time, he has quit his job and enrolled in astronaut school, in a class with Daria (Caturah Brown)—pronounced like Maria and not like the grunge-era animated MTV character—who has dreamed of being an astronaut since she was five; the amiable but slow-to-respond Paul (Jonathan Cruz); and, shortly, through an accident of circumstances, Claire herself, who is both seemingly more excited to be there than Tom is and much better at math. Eventually, it emerges that the school is downsizing and only one of this heterogeneous quartet can be chosen to actually become an astronaut.

Tay Bass. Photo by Skye Morse-Hodgson
When Tom suddenly swerves from his career path—one in which he is going to be promoted and Claire is not—to pursue a new one, Claire is understandably upset, complaining that he never sees the big picture. Tom's decision-making, though, is inextricably tied to his sociocultural position as a straight white man. Claire's accusation of failure to see the big picture could apply to many people, perhaps a majority, when it comes to structural discrimination and its attendant barriers to access. Tom gets into the astronaut school because of whom he knows, the kind of networking that is a proven advantage for white graduates and job-seekers. Daria, meanwhile, a Black woman, had to take an entrance test and works at the school in order to afford her tuition. Tom's entitlement reveals itself in the way that he deflects responsibility, doesn't do his homework, and, per Claire, whines when he doesn't win, just as his unearned confidence shines through his assertion that he could choose equally from 20 or 30 options other than astronaut (this attitude also represents something about our culture and its dismissal of expertise). The problem, and it is an insidious one when attempting to critique this sort of enculturated privilege and rewarding of mediocrity, is that Tom isn't so much a "bad" guy as he is childish and oblivious, which is equally damaging on a large scale but also provokes impassioned defensiveness in the face of criticism.

As the dedication of the other students contrasts Tom's disinclination to hard work, so does the connection that Claire and Daria establish contrast with the comparatively shallow getting-to-know-you session between Tom and Daria. As the two share more about their lives, Claire tells Daria at one point that her personal story is beautiful, which shows both genuine and necessary empathy and acknowledgment and, perhaps, a little bit of Claire's own privilege to be able to frame Daria's struggles in that way. In Tom's favor, his character does not remain static, and the larger question of purpose, of what we are actually supposed to doing in or with this existence, certainly applies to the other characters as well (Paul, for example, identifies himself as a professional dabbler, and the play's title itself nods to unforeclosed alternate possibilities). In an instance both of the micro reflecting macro and of the play's admirable gray areas, when Tom questions his purpose, he also wants someone else to have told him what that is, much like he wanted Claire to tell him his own answers to the online quiz. Happily for these characters, they have in common not only a sense of purposelessness but also separate realizations of cosmic scale and beauty before the end. 
Jonathan Cruz. Photo by Skye Morse-Hodgson
The production make excellent use of color in its lighting design, and the set is appealingly clean and minimalist. All four actors bring notable depth to their characters, such as Brown skillfully showing Daria snapping her protective public face back into place on multiple occasions and including Cruz's primarily comic Paul, who has a very funny scene as Claire and Tom's reluctant go-between. The cast also creates clear chemistry among the characters, whether it is in the details of Tom and Claire's relationship under increasing stress or those of Claire and Daria's burgeoning bond. In raising the question of who will ultimately be the one to slip the surly bonds of earth, Or, An Astronaut Play also raises important questions about America's ostensible meritocracy, and it does so through the compelling lens of four well-drawn individuals looking for a place in the universe. So buckle in with these four would-be cosmic travelers: the internet said so.    

 -John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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