‘The Black Book’ is haunting exploration of human condition

“The Black Book
Who: Black Box Players
Where:Black Box Theater, 820 E. Genesee Syracuse
When: Dec 2 – 10
Tickets: Free
Reservations: blackboxplayerstickets@gmail.com
GRR Review by Lauren Smart

We are all prisoners to our memories and in turn they are captive to us.

In Phil Blechman’s new work “The Black Book,” he explores the brain’s capacity to drive a person mad. The puzzle-like play captures the chaos of a mind on the verge of collapse, wrestling with the power struggles inherent within human interaction and even more frightening – within oneself.

A haunting motif opens the play and repeats throughout, promising to stick with audience members when they lie down to sleep later. “I am slowly going crazy, one two three four five six – switch.”

Peter Sansbury introduces himself to the audience as Collin Archer, a student more interested in smoking cigarettes and taunting his professor Arthur Chase (played by a charmingly awkward Doug Pemberton). After Archer ostensibly skips the first three days of class, Chase seeks help from his friend in the Drama Department, Axel Cooper (Will Pullen).

Concern for Archer’s mental stability drives the two men to look deeper into the student’s story, which slowly becomes muddled with their own. The twist that follows forces the audience to play along with the mental chess game, highlighted by the game’s appearance on stage. Blechman’s play swiftly takes psychological checkmate.

Peter Sansbury and Derek Goh in a scene from "The Black Book."

“The Black Book” plays with both the mind’s ability to control and to be controlled. As the playwright, Blechman controls the audience by rearranging the expected exposition of the story. As the director, Blechman demands performances from his actors that quickly cross the line between self-control and rage.

On opening night, in a fit of fury Pullen throws a chair, breaking the wheels off and when Pemberton walks into the scene he picks the now uneven chair up and places it back by the desk, a perfect, although presumably accidental example of human emotions spiraling into actions into consequences.

Although this is a play about the human minds of Archer, Chase and Cooper, the female parts seem rather underwritten and their relevance to the story confused.

Without exception, the performances in “The Black Book” are on-point. And the story’s sincere exploration of the fragile human condition left me with a lot to think about.

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