“Distant Neighbors” and Close Encounters

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Sheldon Brown (Adams) & Louise Hamill (Talia). Photo by E. Milanovich Photography

Presented by Fresh Ink Theatre
Written by Patrick Gabridge
Directed by Liz Fenstermaker

December 5 – 13, 2014
Boston Playwrights Theatre
949 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA
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Review by Gillian Daniels

Fresh Ink Theatre’s Distant Neighbors hits at the heart of what the best science fiction is about: people reacting to technological advancement.  If you read (or watch the film adaption of) Jurassic Park, you’re not just consuming entertainment to see how people create dinosaurs, but how people react to creating dinosaurs.  Similarly, the characters of Distant Neighbors react to a change in an intimate environment.  Here, however, the source of upheaval is the wing of an apparent spacecraft that comes crashing down into the backyards of Adams (Sheldon Brown), Talia (Louise Hamill), and Griffin (Daniel Boudreau), three neighbors who know nothing about each other.  It’s a wonderful starting point for a story about intimacy and paranoia, but I’m not sure it pans out well.

Certain comparisons for this production are inevitable.  People exploring alien-life without the presence of the aliens in question dates back, in the very least, to the 1960 Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street.”  In this Cold War paranoia story, the electricity goes out in a friendly suburban setting and, with the hint of UFOs in the area, previously friendly households begin to fight over what to do next.  Distant Neighbors comes at this concept from the polar opposite direction.
Adams, Talia, and Griffin don’t really know each other.  The mysterious object that disrupts their lives literally tears down the fences between them.  Adams is established as a Ray Bradbury, Star Trek, and Isaac Asimov fanboy early on and reacts to the appearance of the glowing tower with joy.  He’s been waiting all his life for proof there’s something out there, and a wing that has some sort of empathic hold over them all is just fine with him.  It’s fun to watch Adams’ enthusiasm, but he never seems to have much internal conflict over the discovery.  It’s intriguing to have a black character who talks about being out-of-place in his white neighborhood, but little seems to come out of this plot line.
Griffin is forced into the role of doubting curmudgeon.  His character has a well-developed background, but he spends most of the show denying the object’s power and demanding they stay away from it.
Talia’s character is also thin.  Her motivations remain murky as she swings unexpectedly between Adams’ optimistic point of view and Griffin’s pessimism.  She appears to be attracted to Adams but uneasy about commitment.  She despises her ex-husband, the tattooed pharmacist Blake (Michael Knowlton), but is herself hesitant to get rid of the guy.  Louise Hamill makes the character strong where she can, I think, but she doesn’t feel completely realized.
Meanwhile, NASA investigator Melanie Tomlinson (Gillian Mackay-Smith) is involved, interesting, and terribly funny.  Mackay-Smith’s character is probably the most present of those on stage.  It’s clear she wants the curious object to be real and change their lives, but she’s very aware of the stakes they face.
Now, the object itself is a bit awkward.  As a glowing obelisk that inspires empathy and Freudian passions, the imagery is pretty damn phallic.  I’m fine with that, but it’s a layer of the show that I’m not sure has been incorporated fully into the story.
Far more distracting, though, is the set design.  The set is unstable and on the opening night I saw the show, the wing point-blank fell apart.  Also, the stars behind the heads of the characters are a nice touch, but they’re lit inconsistently, regardless of whether the characters refer to it being night or day.  I hope these things will be fixed during the show’s run.
Saying all this, Distant Neighbors has the benefit of optimism.  When the 1960’s suburbanites in “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” encounter the unexplained, they panic and turn against each other.  When scientists manage to create dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, they’re eventually stalked by them.  It’s a disturbing and traditionalist vein of thinking.  In so much science fiction, there’s fear about change and scientific discoveries. Gabridge’s play has its problems regarding characters, but in its positive outlook on progress and the wonders of the universe, it remains refreshing.

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