It’s a strong fear many of us have: we step into an elevator shoulder to shoulder with other riders en route to wanting to meet with someone, or to simply get off on the right floor to begin our day at work. But, the unthinkable happens, and we find ourselves stuck in the purgatory of a non-ventilated, claustrophobic box due to a mechanical failure outside of our control.
Inspired by a personal experience belonging to writer and director Michael Leoni, “Elevator” – which is produced by An 11:11 Experience and has been extended to run through July 30th at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood, CA – surprises us by being more than just the manifestation of our fears. In actuality, it is a thrilling, funny, and heart-rending story of seven distinct strangers forcibly culled, who eventually realize they are “exactly where they are meant to be,” in what becomes a life-changingly cathartic few hours for all of them.
Based on the short film “Someplace in Between,” this play, which debuted during the inaugural Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2010, garnered immediate recognition and 11 Broadway World nominations, enjoying a 10-month run through 2011. Now, some of the original performers are back for this highly successful go-around, which is not only excellently directed, but features outstanding scenic/lighting design by David Goldstein and music/sound design by Mario Marchetti.
The two behind-the-scenes gurus have taken an elevator and turned it into a spectacular art piece. It includes panels that light up with different colors, energizing instrumental beats tuned to even everyday noises (e.g., tapping of nails, flicking of a lighter), the suspenseful cymbal-like crashes of a perilously faulty elevator, and flashing lights accented by an uptempo rhythm to emphasize the stakes, and at one point, even underscore the fast-forward speeding up of time (for which the performers also deserve much credit). On the more subtle but just as effective scale are the crystal clear-sounding inner thoughts and monologues of the characters we are privy to.
The seven characters (including a crew of elevator technicians whose voices we only hear, all played by Tyler Tanner) are comprised of a Business Man (David Abed), Maintenance Man (William Stanford Davis), Temp (Erica Katzin), Hot Girl (Karsen Rigby), Goth Girl (Kristina St. Peter), CEO Woman (Deborah Vancelette), and Musician (Devon Werkheiser). The premise is driven by the fear of acceptance, the seemingly inherent predisposition for judging others, and how we often transfer our negativity to those around us. Bells, whistles, walls, and social masks notwithstanding, we learn that what these seven individuals desire more than anything else, despite being entirely dissimilar on the surface, is love.
Certainly not immune to this maxim is the hot-tempered Business Man — a persona perfectly portrayed by David Abed, whose impudent character becomes peeved at the slightest annoyance, shouting internally and externally at any perceived annoyance. He examines others with the same disdain he is treated with at his nine-to-five job, hurting himself most of all. The Business Man shields himself until his body can no longer abide by his mind’s rules, giving way to a distressing panic attack that Abed skillfully emotes, eliciting a mix of sympathy and pity.
Played by Deborah Vancelette, the frantic CEO Woman is in day 29 of her precipitous sobriety. She, in addition, bears a strong resemblance in temperament to the Business Man, except she also exhibits the paranoia of a hypochondriac, afraid she could die at any second. The regret caused by playing it safe and not following her true path, hating herself and her job in the process, percolates from her every pore. Vancelette exhibits the neuroticism of her role with impressive skill, moving with an appropriately tentative body language, as in when she amusingly lays down napkins on the elevator floor before sitting down. Furthermore, the CEO is afflicted by a self-blame that gradually starts to see a recovery when she adapts to the notion of being comfortable with herself amid her strangers-turned-friends.
The Temp is wonderfully represented by Erica Katzin, whose character feels a palpable shame about herself just as the Business Man and CEO Woman do, but is not malevolent, instead choosing food – as opposed to anger or alcohol – to numb her unhealthy self-image. Katzin not only evinces a knack for comedy — being able to self-referentially poke fun as her character — but is highlighted by an otherworldly singing voice that is powered by a thousand locomotives, and her memorably dramatic verbal exchange with the Hot Girl.
Karsen Rigby is the Hot Girl, who is more than just what her alluring appearance suggests; she is an audaciously intelligent pediatric nurse, who is able to hold her own against anybody. Men and women might summarily judge her for her elite looks, but what we discover is that she is unremittingly critical about herself, whereas others would only see the advantages she has. Rigby does a terrific job of communicating this tragic self-reflection, and during lighter moments, is very entertaining – for instance, as a seductress (during the Musician’s fantasy sequence), and as the bombshell who can’t dance.
Kristina St. Peter plays the most enigmatic of the seven as the Goth Girl – a disheveled individual who makes her presence known more so with her tortured spirit than with her words. There is something deeply troubling her, and St. Peter remains absolutely committed to her role’s disturbed body language even when the spotlight isn’t on her. It is an exhausting role to play, and St. Peter manages to tirelessly get through it and completely re-shape our initial judgment of her character.
In comparison to their elevator peers, the Musician and the Maintenance Man are the most positive wellsprings inside the small space and, coincidentally, share the two biggest twists about their identity. Nonetheless, their messages of hope largely influence the rest of their cohort to become enlightened in the span of mere hours.
Devon Werkheiser inhabits the role of the charismatic and unfailingly optimistic Musician, who refuses to become disconsolate in spite of his situation. He is as cool as a cucumber, and Werkheiser’s effortless, naturalistic acting seamlessly complements the arc of his character. Werkheiser, who also displays his astonishing musicality, succeeds at being charming and earning laughs by virtue of having impeccable timing, especially during moments with the Hot Girl and CEO Woman.
Last but not least is William Stanford Davis as the limping Maintenance Man named Ralph, whose posture and speaking voice are frayed as if by the burdensome rigors of a blue-collar life. Regardless of this outward hardship, the Maintenance Man lives by his code of reason and humility, bolstered by an uncanny wisdom gleaned from being self-sufficient and living the longest life of any in the stranded group. Affecting a calm presence, Davis is a revelation in the role given how much the audience is encouraged to intently listen to his every word as the play’s incisive truth-teller, whose insights help peel back the self-imposed layers of the others.
Suffice it to say, the unceasing roller coaster of sensations provided by the journey and redemptive outcome of “Elevator” make it a must-see production. Leoni has expertly tapped into and brought out the best in his cast, who relate to each other as both disparate parts and an integrated whole. The sum of their non-verbal cues and personal disclosures, which is at first shrouded by an apprehension resulting from their confinement, ultimately becomes their sanctuary. Most of all, the predicament of being stuck in an elevator becomes a blessing, whereupon most of the characters are confronted with the challenge of freeing themselves from the prison of their own narrow existence.
The performance schedule is as follows: Fridays/Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. For more information, including how to purchase tickets, please visit elevatortheplay.com and plays411.com/elevator