YCDS Goes Off-Script, Produces Witty and Tragic Original Play: A Review Of I’ll Be Right Here
For the first time in its history, the Yeshiva College Dramatics Society presents a play entirely written, scored, and, of course, produced, by Yeshiva University students. I’ll Be Right Here: A Modern Political Tragedy, written by Yeshiva College junior Etai Shuchatowitz, explores the tragic downfall of a charming and promising presidential hopeful, and poses important questions about friendship, loyalty, and glory.
The play opens with chief of staff Thomas Greene (Yadin Teitz), reeling from the shocking death of Senator David Peters (Matis Axel), being interviewed by a police officer (David Cutler) investigating Peters’ presumed suicide. We learn that Peters had been a well-liked politician until scandal brought his campaign to a screeching halt. Through alternating (and often conflicting) memories of Greene and entries in Peters’ diary, we are quickly thrust into a series of flashbacks to Peters’ fall from grace, a dramatic and nuanced plot involving bribery, fabricated evidence, and even a drunken night spent with prostitutes.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the script is its deft creation of tangible and highly intriguing characters. From the very first scene, Shuchatowitz hits the ground running, pulling the audience through a labyrinth of time and space, shaping his characters through their relationships, motivations, and fast-paced conversations. The dialogue, ripe with witty banter, cultural references, and sharp intellect, brings distinct notes of critically acclaimed screenplays such as The Social Network and BBC’s Sherlock. While some references seem a bit forced (at one point Peters himself admits to “Senfeld-ing,” assigning catchy titles to everyday events), others land perfectly and lend an upbeat and modern quality to the script.
Multiple timelines and narrators, while useful for conveying the themes and deep undercurrents of the play, make it difficult to follow the first act, which is jam-packed with exposition of the characters. However, before intermission, when we are taken far into the past to the moment when Greene and Peters first meet in college, the audience can get its bearings and appreciate what lies at the core of the play: the friendship of this unlikely duo. The second act brings the energy onstage to a new level, ending in a crescendo sure to leave the audience both satisfied and wanting more.
Across the board, the acting is truly commendable. Axel, a YCDS veteran, hits the nail on the head with his portrayal of the charming but terribly misguided and insecure Senator Peters. But the scenes that shine the most are those featuring Peters surrounded by his campaign staff, including Greene, Paul Union (Gavriel Guttman), Kevin (Judah Gavant), and Stan (Binyamin Bixon). The actors have great chemistry onstage and one can sense the camaraderie allowing the dialogue to flow so naturally.
I do offer one minor gripe in the form of Teitz’s Thomas Greene. Greene, a man with noble intentions but an inability to charm people the way Peters can, is presented to us as the best in the business when it comes to political strategy. During the campaign he seems confident and commands the respect of everybody in the room. However, at other times, instead of the poise and gravitas one would expect from such a character, we get an anxious, and at times desperate, man trying to clear his name and distance himself from the ugliness of Peters’ misconduct. I think these issues arise from constant fluctuations in Thomas’ attitude demanded by the script, and I believe Teitz does the most he can with a character whose temperament seems inconsistent compared to the otherwise concrete personalities in the play.
The score, arranged by Yeshiva College senior Aryeh Tiefenbrunn, lends a perfect soundtrack to the story, harmonizing with the mood and accenting dramatic moments deftly. The set, which doesn’t change throughout the entire play, is very minimalist. The stage, brilliantly split into two platforms, physically manifests the conflicting memories of Peters and Greene. The abstract graffiti-filled backdrop looks like Uncle Sam’s interpretation of the Berlin Wall, perfectly intimating the disorder of American politics and the disarray and unreliability of Peters’ and Greene’s individual narratives. Props are limited to stools and the occasional beer bottle, and while scenes take place in dozens of settings, there are never any set changes to reflect changes in location.
At the heart of this play lies the tumultuous relationship between Peters and Greene. In many ways, some obvious and some subtle, they are foils for each other. Peters is charming and likeable, while Greene is strategy-minded and occasionally abrasive. Peters, whose favorite book (“It’s actually a play,” ribs Greene) is Death of a Salesman, identifies with Willy Loman, a character motivated solely by a burning desire to be liked. Peters doesn’t really care much for politics, only pursuing it because he craves the adoration of the public. Meanwhile, Greene seeks to actually make a difference in America, but doesn’t have the charisma to become a politician. Each one helps the other to pursue their goals, and neither would thrive without the other, so they establish a symbiotic relationship. Towards the end of the play, Green, in a moment of reflection, asks, “Do you think friendship is anything other than a person we use to feel better about ourselves and the mistakes we make?” Their friendship had always been doomed for failure because of its basis upon each character’s selfish desires.
In addition to the theme of friendship, the play encourages the audience to question the nobility of motivation. While it’s easy to see through Peters’ façade (at one point, his estranged wife sharply critiques: “You’ve confused admiration with love.”), one is left wondering if Peters is anything more than a victim of Greene’s manipulation. Furthermore, underlying Greene’s supposedly noble motivation to make America a better place is his desperation to go down in history and be remembered for the difference he made. Greene cannot love or be loved, so he seeks a legacy instead. At the end of the day, Peters and Greene are not so different from one another; the former craves approval while the latter wants a legacy. On the surface, the play’s subtitle, “A Modern Political Tragedy,” would seem to suggest the tragedy lies in Peters’ untimely death; however, in truth, it manifests itself in the very souls of the play’s main characters. They are both tragic figures: David Peters needs to be loved while Thomas Greene does not have the capacity to love.
I’ll Be Right Here opens on Saturday night and will run through Thursday night. Tickets can be found online or at the box office.