Islander makes one statement clear almost from the top: white men are fragile. And sometimes there is no greater way to exhibit fragile masculinity and its dichotomy of crippling insecurity and bombastic self-centeredness than in professional sports. Playwright Liza Birkenmeier and director Katie Brook team up in Islander to dissect the ego, fragile masculinity, and shame of the Man (David Gould) based around the New York Islanders’ abysmal 2017-2018 NHL season. Using real NHL commentary from the season, the show winds through the highs and lows of a Man who is both shattered by his own insecurity and convinced of his own righteousness. The words are disjointed, sometimes stuttering, sometimes out of context, often confusing, but ultimately revealing as Islander erratically vacillates between humor and drama.
Occasionally, I enjoy going into a show somewhat blind, allowing the story to take me places without my having already carved out a map of how I thought the story would go. If there is one warning I can say about Islander, it is that I wish I had studied the synopsis beforehand. There is no clear thorough line, the dialogue is circuitous, and the topics erratic. This is certainly intentional, and at times masterfully handled by Gould, but it can be very confusing until you gain a grasp of the rhythm. Granted, you will probably still end up confused at moments, but it would help ground you at least a little in the context.
The star of the show is without question Gould. He is given a daunting piece of work which he is primarily handling on his own. Gould deftly takes dialogue that could feel out of place and rhythmically atonal and makes it sound legitimate. I have heard men stuttering over their excuses and pontificating on their ‘philosophies’ in much the same manner as Gould works these vague statements and half-formed thoughts. His work during the show is what allows the final beat of the play to be as evocative and brilliant as it is.
However, Gould’s work is not enough to quite cinch together a show that feels like it has not yet hit its stride. The dialogue can be repetitive and at times monotonous, leaving one to mentally wander away from the show even as it might reflect how it really feels to talk to a man spiraling past his prime. The play runs the risk of taking its ‘not taking itself seriously’ too seriously. The dedicated hockey interpretive dance sequences harken to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia but seem to think they are saying more with their mocking than they are. There is certainly a lot to dive into in the production and the very strategic and well worked light and soundscapes. However, it all still begs the question: Do I really need to see 70 minutes of withering fragile white masculinity on stage when I already see it every day?