In the new play “Salvage,” a team of government officials searches through the rubble of New York for precious objects from the time before a catastrophic event devastated the city. And the play asks what defines us, when almost all the physical trappings of our hyper-connected society are lost.
The play’s official synopsis reads thus:
Salvage is a drama about Noma (Sol Crespo) and Akiko (Rachael Hip-Flores), two government officials searching for precious objects through what’s left of a post-catastrophe New York City. When their manager Dennis (Isaiah Tanenbaum) hires Mandy (Mike Mihm), a veteran from America’s many wars, the searchers discover things that make them question their mission, and whether it’s time to let their city go.
“Salvage” is the latest production from playwright August Schulenburg and the Flux Theatre Ensemble, a group with the stated mission to produce “transformative theatre that explores and awakens the capacity for change.” These themes are firing at full blast throughout “Salvage,” which touches upon on a variety of present-day prescient topics: war, terrorism, privacy, unemployment, environmental issues, modern relationships. The title refers not only to the characters’ occupation but to their greater quest for love and purpose in a world gone to ruin.
In “Salvage,” the answer seems to be that we will still be driven by our basest instincts and desires: for a narrative with the backdrop of massive catastrophe, the action is entirely driven by personal emotion and almost completely contained within a single bunker room.
The closest this narrative has to a protagonist is Akiko, and the script seems to be obsessed with her — as are all of the men on her team. Even when Akiko is off-stage, her name is brought up every few moments, or the characters are motivated by her decisions. Akiko’s taped voice narrates the action between scenes, as the character dictates messages to a lost loved one. (I wrote in my notes that she was often seen “Special Agent Dale Cooper-ing.”)
We’re told several times that Akiko is “a brilliant bitch,” ballsy and uncompromising, and we’re meant to assume that she is profoundly soulful because of her penchant for poetry, or something. But the character as written comes across more as fretful and frightfully repressed, a sort of post-apocalyptic inverted Manic Pixie Dreamgirl. It’s hard to grasp why everyone is in love with her, save that she is played by Hip-Flores.
Hip-Flores has “It,” that ineffable star quality of a performer in the element they were born to occupy. I’ve seen her in a few Flux productions now, and was bowled over by her transformation into Akiko — she’s the sort of actor you can’t stop watching, and I fully expect to see her name in massive marquee lights someday. Akiko in lesser hands might fall flat, but with the radiant Hip-Flores as her avatar, we begin to care about Akiko and worry about her welfare as much as the men who adore her.
At the same time, all of the characters in the play manage to spark interest, and the acting is universally strong. Noma, played by a game and vivacious Crespo, is the fun-loving, irresponsibly reckless gal who seems to have popped into the post-apocalypse from a wacky sitcom next door. She’s instantly recognizable as a type, and to Crespo’s credit she induces equal parts eye-rolling and compassionate sympathy.
Also fascinating is Mandy, who’s a hard-bitten, take-no-prisoners veteran of the mysterious wars that post-catastrophe America continues to wage abroad. Wounded and savage in tongue after what he’s seen, Mandy is a complex creation, reflecting the current-day reality of veterans trying to return to their lives after having seen and done the unspeakable at their government’s behest.
Played by Mihm with impressive physicality and to forceful effect, things are never dull when Mandy’s around. Mihm and Crespo engage in an extended scene of such exquisite awkwardness the audience doesn’t know whether to laugh or blush — I think we did both — and Mandy is given the greatest speeches in a play chock-full of evocative writing. Whether his war stories are entirely full of shit is left to interpretation, as are many “truths” that “Salvage” establishes and then upends.
The strength of the play is not in its overarching storyline, but in its gorgeous acting and its capacity to surprise. Seeming at first to adhere to well-worn tropes we recognize, the plot zigs and zags so that we never know what’s coming — apropos for a world where the balance of normal life has been eviscerated. We don’t get a clear view of what precisely happened to destroy New York City, or who was responsible — only the knowledge that the mighty metropolis is now a dangerously toxic wasteland.
Those who occupy its borders are bound by strict regulations, and the team we watch are called “searchers,” people employed to uncover objects that are on government “lists.” It’s hinted that the rest of the country is OK (even if it’s at war), so I’m not sure why the searchers would be risking deadly radiation disease (in the form of the scary-sounding, spreadable “tox”) in order to find stuff in the rubble. But the further suggestion that jobs are scarce, and any employment at all is vital to survival, probably holds the answer. A U.S. government that would risk the lives of its most desperate citizens to satisfy the whims of powerful individuals sounds about right.
For me the play’s biggest surprise is Dennis, the team’s manager, who seems at first the punchline of a joke about the worst sort of pedantic, rules-obsessed boss. Written as a character with traits on the autistic spectrum — he has trouble with parsing emotional nuance, reading intention from expression, and struggles to detect sarcasm, which he describes as “static” — Dennis could be a one-note cliche, but as played by a phenomenal Tanenbaum, he becomes something else entirely.
At times so disconnected from his fraught underlings that he seems half a robot, Dennis is a wealth of hidden depth and, ironically, the most emotionally consistent character in the play. I last saw Hip-Flores and Tanenbaum onstage together in Schulenburg’s A.I.-gone-haywire “DEINDE,” where they played scientists wired in sync into a creepy matrix.
Here, their characters are not in sync at all, save a shared inability to follow their passions, but their visceral chemistry onstage together goes far. I was astonished by Tanenbaum’s Dennis — he is a revelation, who evolves from a fussy, annoying rube into what is arguably the most heroic role in a world devoid of heroes. It is the seemingly detached Dennis, who had little to lose socially before the apocalyptic Event, who is able to function best in the time After.
Schulenburg is an astute and excellent playwright, equally able to balance wry humor and mournful despondency by turns. The play features both snappy, clever dialogue and movingly evocative monologues. It’s clear that as a writer he’s hardwired into the cultural affairs of the moment, especially the encroaching creep of governments into the lives of its citizenry (on ongoing gag about “Safebook,” the only remaining, government-run social network, had me laughing every time).
The clever script could use some reining in, however. The play runs overlong, clocking in at over two hours, with a lot of time spent in character-building and in set-ups to situations that then occur off-stage or not at all. It’s hard not to feel as though some opportunities were missed and resolutions left unresolved. But this open-endedness can be also be a strength, as we’re never sure what will occur next. I like nothing so much from a night at the theater as not knowing how it will end, and on this count “Salvage” is a success. Its ending ultimately left me moved and wishing we could know even more about our characters’ fate.
The production is driven and sustained by its powerhouse performances. It’s hard to picture how the ensemble could be better, a testament to director Heather Cohn, who coaxes both intense intimacy and heightened dissociation from her performers. The cozy, windowless space of the Lower East Side’s Loisaida Center makes for an excellent underground bunker, further embellished by Will Lowry’s scenic design. The sound and lighting, by Janie Bullard and Kia Rogers respectively, are crucial to invoking a world of tape-recorded voice-overs and inconsistent electricity. Becky Byers’ costume design clads the cast in simple modern dress for the post-apocalypse, with cool neon safety suits that the characters are often taking on and off to indicate their departure and arrival from the ruined city outside.
As with every Flux production I’ve seen, an immense amount of time and care has gone into preparing props and set pieces that establish the greater world of the play: we see bulletin boards pinned with the “precious objects” the searchers are looking for, as well as posters warning of safety procedures to counter the deadly toxins lurking above ground.
“Salvage” marks the launch of Flux Theatre’s “Living Ticket,” a revolutionary initiative designed to make theater open and accessible for all who want to see it. You can see the play for free, or pay whatever you can afford. In bid for transparency the company is calling “Open Book,” the back page of the program publishes the production’s budget breakdown, showing what everything from actors’ pay to costumes to marketing and crew meals cost — and comparing the current costs both to minimum and living wage pricing. It’s a fascinating historical object all on its own.
The Flux Ensemble is worth spending money on — and it also deserves your time. Go for the post-apocalypse and stay for the transcendent ensemble — I think you will enjoy what “Salvage” uncovers.
SALVAGE, presented by the Flux Theatre Ensemble, runs through April 25 at The Loisaida Center in Manhattan’s Lower East Side at 8pm. Visit www.fluxtheatre.org to learn more, or click here to reserve your Living Ticket for free. Space is limited, so click fast. Photos by Deborah Alexander.
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