The cast of Amelia Roper’s She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange includes (from left) George Sellner, Kevin Clarke, Marilee Talkington and Zehra Berkman. Below: Clarke as Max and Talkington as Sara wrestle with a big life change. Photos by Pak Han
There’s something very sly at work in She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange, the world-premiere from Amelia Roper with Crowded Fire Theater at the Thick House. From looking at the vivid, sharply designed set by Maya Linke, with its paper sculpture trees and angled artificial grass, it’s clear this is not going to be just any walk in the park.
But that’s exactly how the play starts: a Sunday in a suburban Connecticut park for new residents Amy (Zehra Berkman) and Henry (George Sellner). He’s a warm, easygoing nurse at a children’s hospital and she’s a high-powered investment banker. They’re an odd pair, especially in this enforced outing, which they make themselves take every weekend. He’s forcing the good cheer, and she can barely contain her work-centric ADHD enough long enough to relax on the picnic blanket.
The 70-minute play’s deliberately slow start contains some of its most incisive character work, especially from Berkman, whose annoyance and anxiety occasionally breaks through the sunny Sunday facade she’s trying to maintain
Then along come Max (Kevin Clarke) and Sara (Marliee Talkington), who also live in the tony neighborhood. He’s in a three-piece suit, which doesn’t seem odd for an investment banker, except that it’s Sunday…and he’s carrying a floor lamp. She’s in evening wear and lugging around an unusually heavy load of shopping bags (Coach, Neiman Marcus, Jimmy Choo).
As this quartet tangles, spars (Max and Amy used to work together) and socializes, it’s clear that something is definitely up. The surprise, when it’s revealed, isn’t really that surprising, but what’s sly about Roper’s script is the way she conveys a sense of absurdism – on the spectrum from Beckett to Will Eno – and high comedy for a situation that turns out not to be absurd or all that funny. Except it is.
Financial ruin, hubris, keeping up appearances – all those great American traditions – are all in play here, as is a whole lot of verbal dexterity. Director M. Graham Smith and his actors underscore Roper’s tone of comic desperation quite effectively even if the only character who really breaks through is Sara, and that has a whole lot to do with Talkington’s remarkable performance.
Sara, a naive, spoiled housewife, could be the true clown of the piece, but she turns out to be the most compassionate. She, among this quartet, has capacity for change, for opening up and experiencing life rather than fighting it. She’s always been one thing, and now faced with a change in circumstances, it seems she’s going to try and be another. Talkington is quite funny to be sure, but there’s so much going on in Sara, from her open-book face to her manor house body language, that it’s almost impossible not to watch her.
That’s not to take away anything from the other actors, all of whom are terrific. Sellner effectively conveys a sunny disposition underscored with something dark and brooding, while Berkman happily breaks through the Sunday doldrums to feast on poor Max. Clarke has all kinds of edgy charisma as Max plays on the swings – the mood swings, naturally, it’s a park – and takes stock of his life and all the things about it he hasn’t paid attention to since he was a child.
Amid the laughs and the shadows and the absurdist tangents, there’s something not quite there at the core of the play. In the end, there’s a confined, airless quality to it that’s hard to shake and makes the play feel longer than it is. Perhaps that’s intentional, but it also keeps Horses from reaching a full gallop.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Amelia Roper’s She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange continues through April 12 in a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 415-746-9238 or visit www.crowdedfire.org.