Reviewed by Gregor Collins
With 75% of the “indie” theater I review these days feeling like audacious millenials with zero budget cranking out some disturbing amalgam of dystopian-apocalyptic-sci-fi-hyper-realistic-political-satire-absurdist theater—and I say that not as a bad thing—it’s refreshing, in a way, to see a play wax old-school tradition like Fiercely Independent: Lights go up, said couple ambles into a hotel room, said couple endures emotional highs and lows, said couple comes out changed. It’s as if Neil Simon himself were alive and well and hunched over a typewriter.
But just because this felt refreshing, it doesn’t mean you should be forking out $59 to see it.
The plot: Julie and Robert have been married for four years. They are not getting along. They decide to spend 24 hours together in a hotel room with no television, no cellphones, no internet or computers, to see if they can work things out.
As a traditional “well-made” play that played it safe, it’s reasonably engaging. I never twiddled, I never checked my watch, and I was “with them” the whole way—but these days, at least for me, if an indie or Off-Broadway play doesn’t make the kind of bold choices that risk it falling flat on its nose, it’s not going to stick with me… Fiercely won’t give you any new or inspiring perspectives on life. It stays mildly interesting through changes in blocking, changes in time, bringing in a bellhop once in awhile, playing music—but it fails to challenge us, to make us feel anything we didn’t already feel going into it.
Those middle-class white couple notes it hits, we can relate to: We’ve had a relationship (or at least heard of one) teetering on collapse, like matchbox cars racing around a tenuous track; most (at least Western) males have felt what Robert (Christopher Smith) feels, confused by his own inscrutability while tilting at windmills to be the man the world wants him to be; feeling emasculated and living in fear that he won’t be able to keep a woman interested. And Julie (Caitlin Gallogly), frustrated by Robert’s inability to express his true feelings. These are age-old problems with the sexes that feel close to home.
Other things I appreciated: Not having an intermission and it only being 70 minutes; Actor Christopher Smith—after a few minutes of me wondering if he was nervous or just not a good actor—loosening up to give us glimpses of a mercurial Alpha Male cracking open his vulnerability; and Jordan Sobel (Bellman), despite being cast to literally bring props on and off stage, coming across overqualified, almost as if he should have been headlining the show. (later I saw in the playbill that he was Smith’s understudy, confirming my instincts.)
Julie (Gallogly) was, for me, the best part of the play. Maybe she reminded me of a girlfriend I had once. Or a girl I liked. Or a girl I want. But she had a tenderness to her sharp wit, a sensuality to her girl-next-door-ness; I found myself mostly watching her, not because Smith wasn’t interesting, but because she was MORE interesting; I cared about her and hoped she would find a man who could show his true feelings. At the end when the audience was clapping at each actor, the claps rained the hardest when Gallogly stepped forward. She seemed genuinely surprised, almost embarrassed. But we weren’t. We were just showing our appreciation for the actor we felt began, and ended, the story.
Written and directed by 3-time Tony-award winning producer Kathleen K. Johnson in what looks to be her first credit as a playwright—the evening—again, not that there’s anything wrong with this—felt written by a middle-class white woman. Of course, Middle-class white women can write a great play. And they have. But in this case you get what you pay for: A mildly-engaging middle-class white couple having a shit day.
FIERCELY INDEPENDENT will perform through April 7—Wednesdays through Fridays at 7 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 7 pm, and Sundays at 3 pm.
Tickets are $59 and can be purchased at https://www.fiercelysoho.com/
or call 212-691-1555.