In Brooklyn, Matthew Freeman’s new play That Which Isn’t sets itself up to delve into the intricacies of human relationships. Set during the course of two separate nights, five years apart, the show is charged with emotion, fraught with tension, and unafraid to show the stickier side of what happens when people become entwined in each other’s lives.
That Which Isn’t opens on a man and a woman sitting alone, already bristling with unnamed resentment that is slowly brought to light throughout the first act. Through carefully chosen snatches of a night’s worth of conversation, we are introduced to Helen (Moira Stone) and James (David DelGrosso), a couple whose lives are clearly very intimately attached. They seem to know everything about each other, from family issues to work issues to personal issues, and yet they bicker over the most trivial of subjects: climbing trees, for instance. Act Two opens five years later, on the opposite side of the country, and James is out of the picture. Instead, it is a strange, visibly nervous man, Marcus (Mick O’Brien), who greets a newly confident Helen. Once again the nature of their relationship unfolds for the audience slowly, painstakingly, painfully.
The premise of That Which Isn’t is interesting. The intimacy of the two conversations forces the viewer into a level of connection with Helen and company that one would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. By measuring her against the two men who cross paths with, Helen becomes at once familiar, and shocking as we learn more about her. She proves to be an intensely pensive character study, but at the same time aloof and selfish. Burdened with all the usual problems of the average New Yorker, she also shoulders the weight of a struggling brother, an unhelpful mother, and regular therapy sessions “just to deal with people,” as James admonishes. Topped off with her turbulent interactions with James and Marcus, the prickly Helen is a role into which Moira Stone slips perfectly, down to each twitch of a limb or flick of a brow.
All of Helen’s prickliness comes at a price, however. Quirky though she may be, her self-confessed inability to connect (something that both James and Marcus desire, for different reasons) is what dominates the conversations, as well as my experience of her. Very quickly, Acts One and Two become emotionally draining as we struggle to empathize. Consequently, the two separate exchanges begin to stretch beyond the point of compelling as Helen’s callousness gradually kills any spark of sympathy I may have harbored for her.
The theme of the play seems to be the boundaries between what should be said and what thoughts should be kept hidden. “What you think and what you mean do not come out the same way. So they’re not the same thing,” says Helen to James. Later, her words are turned on her: “There are some things not to say. That you shouldn’t tell other people. There are things to keep to yourself,” Marcus tells her, reeling from her shocking revelation. What should and shouldn’t be said is the underlying theme of the arguments between Helen and James, and it is Helen’s obliviousness to these boundaries that has Marcus – endearingly acted by Mick O’Brien – on edge throughout the whole encounter.
Is Helen beyond redeeming? Is she forgivable for what she admits to Marcus at the end of their dinner together? It’s hard to say – That Which Isn’t does such a good job putting forth a truly difficult character that by the end, I didn’t really want to know anymore. This was a skillfully well rendered experience I would not be eager to repeat.