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'Ten Ways on a Gun' and the Making of Theater about Violence

Dylan Lamb’s new play imagines the collision of a docu-dance company and a timeshared gun.

Photos by Joshua Sterns

Tommy is a millennial living in Brooklyn with an immensely unfulfilling job in timeshare telesales, which he is terrible at. His boss is also his girlfriend's father. Mired in feelings of inadequacy and lack of control, Tommy buys a gun online, but his horrified girlfriend Becca insists that he get rid of it. So he sells it to a coworker, and before long what was meant to be a symbol of Tommy's freedom has been timeshared as well, and every second is a struggle until he can get to his week in the rotation.

Jessica is the director of a New York "docu-dance" theater company, who when out at a tiki bar one night hooks up with a man who tells her an unbelievable story about a man named Tommy Freely. Desperate for a concept for a devised dance/theater piece to pitch to her investor (her company member's boyfriend), Jessica seizes on the tale, but as she digs deeper she discovers just how many people were hurt in the scheme. Still she persists, determined to find out why anyone would want to buy (or timeshare) a gun.

Playwright Dylan Lamb and Squeaky Bicycle Productions dive right into one of our most contentious cultural dialogues with Ten Ways on a Gun. By setting the play amongst a cast of characters who likely resemble the audiences attending the show in age and political persuasion, however, they shift the conversation away from why rural conservative Americans want to own guns and instead let viewers ask themselves, "Why would I want one?"

The metatheatrical production cycles back and forth between two timelines, Tommy's story itself and that of Jessica as she discovers and tries to adapt it, until they finally merge into one. While it may take a few minutes for audiences to catch on to this mode of storytelling, before long it becomes an exciting, engaging performance; we piece the story together just as Jessica does. In general, the "inner story" characters of Tommy and his coworkers Teddy, Philly and Kugel are more fleshed out and easier to relate to emotionally, while Jessica's theatrical cohort often relies on stereotypes and cheap bickering to drive the plot.

Still, Lamb captures the language and idioms of New York millennial theater-makers perfectly, and some elements of the frame story are very well done; a scene in Tommy's story that seems odd and out of place when we first encounter it is later explained by the theater company's well-meaning but rather clueless investor suddenly deciding he wants a role in the play and imagining that scene. Yet, it would likely be a much stronger piece without much of the romantic drama and self-referential moments, from Jessica's monologues about how to capture her story to inserting their own critic into the play to pan the performance. In this psychological foray into the feelings of power and powerlessness associated with guns, perhaps Jessica's failure to represent Tommy's story is just another manifestation of this helplessness, but the tale of the gun remains the more engaging one.

The best moments of Ten Ways on a Gun occur when the play fully embraces its overdramatic, absurdist tendencies, from the L-train country line dance to Becca's dinner party with a pair of gay friends where the dialogue consists largely of the words "rutabaga," "squash" and "kale" repeated ad nauseum. The existence of a "Stage Directions" character who slowly acquires her own agency and revolts against the director's rule has the potential for such a feat as well, but ultimately not enough is done with the entity to justify the presence of a performer on stage who largely just reads stage directions unnecessarily.

The production is also plagued by a few logical flaws around the very idea of timesharing a gun: how could they have ever gotten to keep the gun after it was involved in a criminal investigation, for one, and did anyone ever even buy bullets? Actors vocalizing the gunshot noises rather than any sort of special effect also distracts from the supposed seriousness of the moments when the gun is actually fired. Caught between a deadly serious situation and a vaguely ironic and absurdist mode of performance, some critical moments of Ten Ways on a Gun fall flat.

So is this performance "a national its subject matter," as the in-show critic announces? Of course not, and the play certainly captures some important thoughts about the values and dangers of guns in modern society even in a liberal, pro-gun control environment. Meanwhile, in a production in which the main characters are often overly self-absorbed, it is the the humor and striking energy of secondary figures that stands out, whether that is superstar salesman Kugel (Nathaniel Kent), Jessica's delightful roommate she found on Craigslist (Nathan Brisby) or veteran vegetarian dinner party hostess Becca (Alisa Murray).

Ten Ways on a Gun deftly deals with our cultural baggage regarding guns, gun ownership and the tools we use to feel in control of our lives. While a little too caught up in the conceit of a theater company devising a play about the subject matter they are truly addressing, director Kathryn McConnell and Squeaky Bicycle Productions do reveal some important truths about why giving up guns isn't as easy as it seems.

Ten Ways on a Gun plays at Theater for the New City through October 25.

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