There’s nothing like being stuck on vacation in a cabin in the middle of nowhere with a group of people you don’t entirely like. “The Brink Of Us,” presented by the Deer Players at South Oxford Space in Brooklyn, captures the grim combination of claustrophobia, awkwardness, and ugliness that can arise.
Written by Delaney Britt Brewer and directed by Kara-Lynn Vaeni, the play explores the group dynamics among eight young adults trying to recover from the death of their friend, Annie. Annie’s brother Elliot, played by Tom Kelsey, is not quite ready to let go of the past, and as the treacherous snowfall plunges the group into isolation, it slowly becomes evident that something is wrong with these characters.
Taking advantage of the handsome, wood-paneled rectangular room that serves as performance space, Vaeni sets up an unusually intimate experience for the audience. Roughly 50 seats are placed against the edges of the room, together forming a long U-shape. Members of the audience are instructed to leave certain seats open, as those are actually props in the play. Occasionally, an actor will nonchalantly take one of these seats among the audience as he chats with the other characters.
This intimacy between the audience and the cast makes sense considering the plot: An invisible participant in the group vacation, the audience members also feel the characters’ entrapment as the story gets darker. A potential downside of this nontraditional setup is that it can be hard to know where to look, but the actors do a good job of commanding your attention to where it should be at any given moment. On opening night, the actors’ performances seemed a little awkward and forced in the first few minutes, as if thrown off by the presence of the audience, but they slowly adjusted and began to convincingly act as if the audience wasn’t there.
The characters themselves are tongue-in-cheek stereotypes: Each embodies a certain type of pretentious, modern young adult, such as the slightly overbearing humble-bragger Alex (Julia Piker), the high-powered Manhattanite Sebastian (Peter Staley), and the frantically insecure Liz (Annelise Nielsen). However, stereotypical characters can also be wooden. Not all of the actors mastered the blend of subtlety and irony required to make their character believable. Kelsey’s performance as the protagonist, Elliot, stands out in this regard. He is convincing as the level-headed, nice boy that Elliot pretends to be on the surface, while also communicating the character’s chilling and vengeful dark side during monologues and one-on-one conversations.
Because Brewer’s dialogue can be tricky to work with, sophisticated characterization is important. The quirky irony embedded in certain lines is often lost because an actor invests too much emotion into it when it might have been better to let the absurdity of the small talk, punctuated with delicate silences, do its own work. Additionally, as food supplies dwindle due to the snowstorm, the characters don’t convincingly convey their physical starvation.
That being said, the parts of the play that called for psychological melodrama are well-acted: The emotional and mental collapses that the characters undergo seem palpable and real. This taut psychological atmosphere is crucial because at a certain point, the ending will become obvious. However, that doesn’t detract from the twisted thrill one derives from watching the play’s sickening, but hypnotizing, final moments.
“The Brink Of Us” runs through May 17, Friday through Sunday at 8 p.m. at South Oxford Space (138 South Oxford St., Brooklyn), with an additional performance on Thursday, May 15. Tickets cost $20 ($18 with student ID).