Breathing Time: Theater Review

Jacob J. Goldberg
Talented playwright Beau Willimon foregoes politics for this well-observed but overly familiar intimate drama.

This world premiere play by Beau Willimon ("House of Cards") concerns four ordinary people whose lives become intertwined by fateful circumstances.

It’s a genuine coup for the Fault Line Theatre, a little-known, four-year-old Off Broadway company, to be presenting Beau Willimon’s Breathing Time. At this point the playwright couldn’t be hotter, with such credits as The Ides of March—the film version of his play Farragut North—and House of Cards, the hit Netflix series he created and for which he serves as showrunner and executive producer. So it comes as no small surprise that his latest effort is being given its world premiere at a tiny theater in New York City’s East Village.

Another surprise is that the subject matter has nothing to do with politics, an area in which Willimon clearly seems to be specializing. Instead, this intimate drama concerns a quartet of ordinary people whose lives are thrown together by fate.

The first half of the intermission-free drama is set in an office on the 95th floor of an office building in lower Manhattan. It’s inhabited by finance industry workers Jack (Craig Wesley Divino) and Mike (Lee Dolson), who display an easy camaraderie even though they’re obviously very disparate types. Arriving early to prepare for an important presentation, the single Jack, who’s obviously spent the night on the town, is not only hung-over but as he almost proudly explains, is “still fuckin drunk.” The far more straitlaced Mike, a husband and father of a small child, bemusedly interacts with his profanity-spouting colleague while sipping from a Starbucks coffee that Jack derides as “overpriced bullshit.”

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Throwing a small plastic football back and forth, the two men engage in casual banter revolving around their work and personal lives, such as Jack’s expressing deep affection for his younger sister, a single mom who’s working as a dancer in Minneapolis. But the conversation also takes more serious turns, including a story that Jack relates about his Vietnam War-veteran father and a horrific wartime event in which a West Point graduation ring assumes a key role. But their conversation is ultimately cut short, in a key plot twist that would be a spoiler to reveal.

Cut to three weeks later, when Jack’s sister Denise (Shannon Marie Sullivan) and Jack’s wife Julie (Molly Thomas) are meeting for dinner in a near-empty Tribeca restaurant. The initially friendly encounter soon turns awkward and highly emotional as the two women hash out personal issues while getting steadily drunk on a stream of sidecars. The play ends with a flashback to the first time that Jack and Mike met, when the former was assigned to share the office that Mike previously occupied alone.

Willimon’s gift for incisive characterizations and colorful dialogue is well on display in the piece, which nonetheless suffers from a rambling discursiveness and themes that feel overly familiar and rather dated. What might have packed a punch in an earlier time now feels redundant.

The ensemble--which also includes Whitney Conkling as Jack’s comely assistant and John Racioppo as a hunky waiter over which both women drool—deliver strong performances, with particularly fine work by Divino as the endlessly gregarious Jack. And director Aaron Rossini has enhanced the intimacy of the tiny space, with the audience watching the action from two sides and seemingly eavesdropping on private conversations. But while Breathing Time has an unavoidable emotional resonance, especially for New Yorkers, it ultimately represents a minor effort from its talented author.

Venue: Teatro IATI, New York (runs through April 13)

Cast: Whitney Conkling, Craig Wesley Divino, Lee Dolson, John Racioppo, Shannon Marie Sullivan, Molly Thomas

Playwright: Beau Willimon

Director: Aaron Rossini

Set designer: Tristan Jeffers

Lighting designer: John Eckert

Costume designer: Izzy Fields

Sound designer: Chad Raines

Presented by Fault Line Theatre