Review: "George Kaplan" Dissolves the Boundaries Between Man and Myth

George Kaplan

Written by Frédéric Sonntag

Translated by Samuel Buggeln

Directed by Max Hunter

Presented by The Bridge Production Group at New Ohio Theatre

154 Christopher St, Manhattan, NYC

November 15-December 3, 2022

George Kaplan, featuring Christina Toth, Elisha Lawson, Max Samuels, Michael DeFilippis, & Campbell Symes. Photo credit: Nancy Fallon
Individual identity is arguably more fraught than ever, surveilled and sold, for example, by the same corporations that provide platforms for its curation, some of which in turn have ties to national governments. Frédéric Sonntag's play George Kaplan, written in 2011 and first staged in France in 2013, approaches identity at its intersections with storytelling and mythmaking. George Kaplan's New York City premiere comes courtesy of an excellent production by The Bridge Production Group, which brings a galvanizing energy to Sonntag's twisty mélange of human drama, satire, and postmodern philosophical provocation.

One of the many people–real and fictional–to whom "George Kaplan" refers is a diegetically fictional secret agent in Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 film North by Northwest for whom the protagonist is mistaken, with rather unwelcome consequences. While this fact is mentioned in the play, it is not raised by the first group of characters whom we meet, an activist collective in which vision decidedly outpaces execution. The members of the group (Christina Toth, Max Samuels, Elisha Lawson, Campbell Symes, and Michael DeFilippis, who also play the other groups of characters in subsequent sections of the show) have all adopted the name George Kaplan, at least for the purposes of their meetings, and hope to inspire others to similarly resist, as one of them puts it, the imperative to "be somebody." The problem is that the group's members don't all agree even on its name, much less its function: Hoax? Virally emergent myth? Weapon? The squabbling Georges run the gamut from one (Toth) who is seemingly in it for parliamentary procedure and taking minutes to another (DeFilippis, in a fantastic turn) who acts like a mad philosopher much fonder of gesticulation than of personal space. A lot of this will seem familiar to anyone who has worked as part of a committee, down to the inferior coffee, but might equally evoke failed revolutionary groups and governments.
George Kaplan, featuring Elisha Lawson, Max Samuels, Campbell Symes, Christina Toth, & Michael DeFilippis. Photo credit: Nancy Fallon
Unexpected visitors to the group's meeting place mark an unexpected shift to a new setting and a new group of characters: a group of screenwriters joined by a novelist (DeFilippis) as they brainstorm scenarios involving incitements to revolt, the deep state, and more for an unidentified client who (or which) has stipulated that these scenarios must include the moniker "George Kaplan." One writer, Bob (Lawson), talks about how his profession has made it impossible not to constantly see real life through the lens of fiction, but it is his colleagues' refusal to see Bob as other than the guy who writes funny dialogue that brings this segment of the play to a brilliantly staged end that unsettlingly presents the onstage reality through the monitors of the cameras that are surveilling them. The conference room in the show's final segment is populated with unidentified agents in dark suits rather than screenwriters, like one of their film scenarios come to life. The agents are concerned with what their intelligence gathering has identified as an uptick in references to "George Kaplan," but they see opportunity in this threat as well, in a way that clearly evokes historical analogs.
George Kaplan, featuring Elisha Lawson, Michael DeFilippis, Max Samuels, Christina Toth, & Campbell Symes. Photo credit: Nancy Fallon
This final section is richest in the echoes and refractions that accumulate throughout the play–with coffee the most consistent throughline alongside the capacious signifier "George Kaplan"–but Sonntag leaves it to the audience to decide how and if this all fits together. Questions of narrative control and/in contrast to appropriation branch out in multiple directions and create thought-provoking juxtapositions; significantly, for instance, the activists and agents hit upon more or less the same means in the pursuit of more or less opposite ends. The show and the cast are consistently funny–Toth's resentful screenwriter is one highlight in this regard–and the production's moments of tension and eruptions of genuine anger gain by the contrast. Smart, silly, and stimulating, George Kaplan creates a consummate myth (or weapon) for our time.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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