Review: In "Occasionally Nothing," an Absurdist New Order

Occasionally Nothing

Written by Natalie Menna

Directed by Ivette Dumeng

Presented by Theater for the New City

155 1st Ave., Manhattan, NYC

April 28-May 15, 2022

L to R: Mike Roche, Sean Hoagland. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Imagine a group of people trapped inside with one another, sheltering in place from the pandemic and war outside. This is the situation presented in actor and playwright Natalie Menna's Occasionally Nothing, and while the circumstances might sound ripped from today's headlines, Occasionally Nothing was first presented, in a shortened form, at the Planet Connections Festivity in 2016, which reflects well on the play's perspicacity and rather less well on humanity. Loss and despair are shot through with 
humor in the new production of Menna's absurdist look at social disintegration.

By the time that the play opens, Clay (Sean Hoagland), a British expat punk, and his uncle Harry (Mike Roche) have been holed up in an abandoned church for months (perhaps, anyway–time, like other perceptions and memories, has grown a little fuzzy for the characters), along with Harry's wife, Luella (Holly O'Brien). Clay is the only one to periodically venture outside, though he may be misremembering or lying about what he has seen there, including whether there are still other people, and Luella is having some trouble processing what has happened to the world, believing, on top of a protective forgetfulness, that she is a Rockette and, more problematically for the trio, that she is not married to Harry. References to banned words and revolution, an elected American authoritarian, and widening international conflict give the audience a sense of the path to this particular apocalyptic outcome, and the characters' interactions play out, meaningfully, beneath both a tattered American flag and a large wooden cross. But the play also transcends a particular political moment. In the opening scene, for example, Clay and Harry try to hash out whether nothing can be something, an opportunity for some funny, rapid-fire play with language but also a valid philosophical question about the presence of absence and a debate the final conclusion of which–sometimes–gestures to a radical contingency in both language and being. When Clay thinks he hears something, the something might be the sound of a voice or of an explosion. Maybe they can be equivalent. Sometimes.
L to R: Mike Roche, Holly O'Brien, Sean Hoagland. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
There are echoes here of Beckett's Endgame, which Occasionally Nothing invokes directly and more than once. But if Harry and Clay are in part a new variation on Hamm and Clov, Harry's assertion that there is no cure for love highlights, in playing on Hamm's assertion that there is no cure for being on earth, the very different dynamic and tensions introduced by Clay and Harry sharing the end of things with Luella, a potential partner for either man, rather than, say, some legless parents in trash bins. (The play, it should be noted, smartly keeps Luella a mysterious offstage "she" while it introduces some of the conflicts around her and builds anticipation for her appearance.) Despite the disempowerment of Luella's distressed mental state, she is nevertheless central to the men's considerations of how and if things will end, even if she doesn't know it, a power reflected in stretches when O'Brien projects a blithe self-assurance mirrored by her sparkling tiara. Whether nothing can ever be something is not the only point on which the traditional Harry and the punk Clay differ, and Roche and Hoagland make fine foils, with the charismatic Hoagland delivering a standout performance (and the best English accent).
L to R: Mike Roche, Holly O'Brien, Sean Hoagland. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
Clay's identification with punk, a scene that started out as something very different from what it was eventually and overwhelmingly co-opted into, offers an interesting analogy to other, destructive shifts that result in the play's shattered world (and The Clash, both forwards and backwards, and Metallica provide some thematically appropriate musical cues). Punk absurdism seems an eminently suitable approach to our contemporary moment, and Occasionally Nothing makes the end of everything absurdly entertaining.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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