The human brain is a powerful and fascinating thing. In Plasticity, a world premiere play written by Alex Lyras and Robert McCaskill, a man in a coma struggles to become conscious again, all while his family and friends are forced to make difficult decisions regarding his life and future.
The play begins with adventure-seeker David Rosely falling into a coma after a brain aneurysm. His twin brother, Grant, a greedy, abrasive businessman, rather quickly comes to the conclusion to withdraw life support, a decision David’s fiance, Katherine, disagrees with. As the two engage in a legal and ethical battle for David’s future, David begins to make neurological progress that startles his doctors. It has been proven that comatose patients are often aware of their surroundings, which links back to the play’s title—”plasticity” refers to the ability of the brain to modify its own structure and function in response to significant changes within the body or the environment.
Plasticity is presented not only as a play, but as a multimedia experience. Elaborate projections and pre-recorded video footage are used to set the scene (days projected on a screen at the front of the stage help the audience keep track of how long David has been comatose) and portray David’s struggle to reemerge into consciousness through a whirlwind of key memories and images. Perhaps most notably, considering all of the characters who appear in the play are portrayed by Lyras in a unique solo performance, pre-recorded footage projected on the screens allows him to interact with himself. Lyras and McCaskill teamed up with Emmy-winning editor Peter Chakos, set and lighting designer Matt Richter, composer Ken Rich, and visual artist Corwin Evans to create the unique presentation, which is as cutting edge as the science it explores.
While the multimedia elements were very successful, I disagree with the choice to make this play a solo performance. Lyras plays over half a dozen characters—in addition to David and Grant, he is also Katherine’s therapist, David’s neurosurgeon, Katherine’s lawyer friend, a hospital orderly, and a nurse. Aside from the video screens, the stage is bare, and the only props are a chair, a pair of glasses, a phone, and a cigarette. As a result, it is necessary to be able to quickly differentiate the characters with little to no wardrobe changes (occasionally a jacket, a hospital gown, or a hat were added or removed), and Lyras does this primarily through accents. Through no fault of his acting ability, this leads to the characters quickly falling into boxes of stereotypes—the Hispanic nurse, the grimy-sounding lawyer, the Indian doctor. The actual cast of characters is quite diverse as written, but having them all played by one man makes it feel uncomfortable.
Additionally, I found it extremely off-putting that while Katherine is arguably the third most important character in the entire play, she never gets to speak for herself because Lyras only portrays the male characters in the story. Instead, we hear all about her from her male therapist, who openly struggles with remaining professional and not objectifying her, and from her brother-in-law who talks down to her in a very demeaning, misogynistic way. The same is true of all other female characters, no matter how small—at one point, we see video of Grant FaceTiming with his girlfriend on the screen, but she is merely a concerned face—she never speaks. I was particularly horrified near the end when Katherine does something shocking and extremely morally questionable during David’s treatment, yet of course is given no opportunity to defend herself. The character is not painted in a good light, which would be perfectly acceptable if she were actually a character in the show.
For a play that sets up a real opportunity to discuss end-of-life issues and difficult moral and ethical medical decisions, it chose instead to only actively portray one point of view—the male one. When it comes time for the nitty-gritty legal decisions, we again hear only about Katherine’s course of action from her male lawyer. None of this is helped by the fact that Grant as a character is just a completely unlikable tool, which is even more of a reason his biggest adversary should have been given any kind of actual presence within the play. You simply can’t have a disagreement if one of the two participants is not present to speak. I have never seen a more complete failure of the Bechdel test.
If the playwrights insist on a one-man show, it would have been more effective to simply focus on the bond between Grant and David and how their relationship as identical twins plays into both the medical dilemma and the neurological science of attempting to fight one’s way out of a coma. While the multimedia elements were impressive, Plasticity completely missed the opportunity to say anything profound as a result of too many missteps in the way it was presented.
Plasticity runs at the Hudson Guild Theatre in Hollywood through March 13th. Performances are Saturdays and Mondays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased at www.plasticitytheplay.com.