By James Bartholomew
As far as openings go, you can do a lot worse than “Natural Shocks.” The play begins with a raging storm siren as Angela, played by Pascale Armand, rushes down the stairs to her basement, where she means to hunker down and weather a coming tornado. Initially frenzied by the thought of the looming threat, Angela quickly collects herself and decides to wait out the storm by explaining to her equally captive audience just how exactly she ended up here in the first place.
Written by Lauren Gunderson, whom American Theatre Magazine declared the most produced playwright in America today, “Natural Shocks” is a show about love, loss and insurance agents. Angela, herself an insurance agent, has a lot on her mind. Throughout the play, she laments her fractured relationship with her mother, gushes over Shakespearean monologues, and confesses her love of actuarial science and reinsurance seminars.
It’s weighty material, but Ms. Armand, a Tony Award nominee for “Eclipsed,” carries it with grace and style. Even after several monologues about the joys of risk mitigation and the poetry of probability, Angela’s nerdy quirks always feel charming and endearing, rather than abrasive or exclusionary. It’s hard not to smile when she giddily explains the sixteen perils of insurance coverage, not because her facts are particularly interesting, but because of the infectiousness of her excitement.
Ms. Armand’s vibrance on stage is deeply enthralling and almost enough to make up for the play’s staggered pacing and thin structure. Angela’s stream-of-consciousness musings are bookended by the distant howls of the tornado and the flickering twilight shining through her basement window. She repeatedly rushes to the window to check her surroundings, and flinches at the sound of encroaching wind. It’s a clever way to remind the audience of the uncertainty of Angela’s predicament, but the constant interruptions make the narrative difficult to follow. The tornado makes for an excellent catalyst for the plot, but ends up doing little to support the myriad stories and digressions once the play gets moving.
Of course, some of that structural fuzziness is intentional. Between Angela’s admitted penchant for lying, her hints about her unhappiness, and her repeated mentions of a hidden gun, “Natural Shocks” doesn’t do the best job of hiding its inevitable twist. The nature of that twist is surprising and relevant enough not to give it away here, but suffice to say, “Natural Shocks” is about much more than Angela, her basement or the tornado. From a production standpoint, the execution is near-flawless, with some smart lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker really selling the new threat Angela faces at the end.
The only problem is that the twist doesn’t quite pay off. Again, it’s still an ending worth experiencing for yourself, but when so much of the play is spent on the beautifully banal life of its heroine, there just isn’t enough context to keep the eleventh-hour turn from muddying the waters. Rather than reframing the events of the play in a thoughtful way, “Natural Shocks” gestures wildly at some grand lesson or idea that it never really sets up.
Underwhelming though its finale may be, “Natural Shocks” is a powerful delight of a play. It’s not always tied down, but Ms. Armand’s gift for personable storytelling keeps all the plates spinning. Lee Savage’s basement set is both tidy and confining, littered with old furniture and holiday decorations in a way that hits home the show’s suburban Americana charm. The performance is shocking in all the right ways, but the voltage of the text could use some dialing up.
Performed by Pascale Armand
Oct. 28-Nov. 25, 2018
Directed by May Adrales
Written by Lauren Gunderson
Scenic Design by Lee Savage
Costume Design by Jen Caprio
Lighting Design by Amith Chandrashaker
Original Music and Sound Design By Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes
Production Stage Manager Ralph Stan Lee
Photo: Joan Marcus
New York City
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.