The Moonlight Room

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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the April 21, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

In New York: ‘Moonlight Room’

Who can blame Laura Breckenridge for putting her studies on hold? The Princeton undergraduate is currently playing a major role in the Off-Broadway hit “The Moonlight Room.” After garnering enthusiastic reviews during its run off-off Broadway in the fall of 2003, the play, written by Princeton graduate Tristine Skyler, has been moved into an open-ended run on Theater Row. Even more glowing notices have greeted the play, but there has been an equally attentive response from the press to Breckenridge’s performance as Sal, a teenager spending a long night in a New York City hospital waiting room. There, she and Josh, a boyfriend, have brought a mutual friend who has overdosed.

Breckenridge, whose major is classical studies with a focus on art and literature and a minor in theater, says during our phone chat, “Although I am fully committed to the play, my intention is to graduate now with the Class of 2007 instead of 2006.” A native of Flourtown (near Chestnut Hill), Pennsylvania, Breckenridge will be the first person to admit that she has led a very different life than that of her character Sal, who is seriously alienated from her divorced and withdrawn mother with whom she lives. “I’m very close to my parents, who have been together for 25 years and with my brother Sean,” who is graduating from LaSalle University this spring.

Although her father is in the medical profession and her mother in academe, their support for Laura’s artistic bent included sending her to the Professional Children’s School in New York where they kept an apartment. “It was a tough schedule, as I would either stay in the city three or four days a week with my Mom or grandmother or commute back home,” says Breckenridge, who was soon able to show them the results of her training. An accomplished dancer, she appeared with the Pennsylvania Ballet in “The Nutcracker,”, “Cinderella,” and “Coppelia,” as well as in the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular. “I did have to make the decision whether to pursue acting and singing over a serious commitment to dance.” Her love of dance, nevertheless, continues with her participation with the Princeton University, dance group Body Hype.

About “The Crucible,” in which she made her Broadway debut playing with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, she says, “I was the second smallest screamer.”

Breckenridge doesn’t have to do any screaming in “The Moonlight Room.” It is her slow burn performance that is wowing audiences. Breckenridge was a student at Princeton when she auditioned for the role and discovered it had been written by Skyler, Princeton Class of 1993, who had developed the concept of the play while working on an adaptation of a collection of short stories by the novelist — and Princeton creative writing professor — Joyce Carol Oates.

“I had just moved into my dorm when I heard that I got the part. I got the dean’s okay to put my studies on hold for what I thought then would be about four weeks.” Breckenridge acknowledges that the show took on a life of its own (“with the same cast and the same creative team”) with extensions and the eventual move uptown. “Being with this show was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

Breckenridge credits Skyler for having written the kind of complex character with the kind of conflicts that “I can relate to, especially what I can sense is Sal’s wish that her cautious relationship with Josh could be more.” While the strikingly attractive Breckenridge admits to being a little shy talking about her real life boyfriend Adam, another Princeton graduate in her life, but not at all reluctant to admit that, “I love college and the whole experience. But nothing could compare to the experience I had this year with this play.”

— Simon Saltzman

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The Moonlight Room

Suggest a remote roadside diner (“Bus Stop” by William Inge), a kitchen (Sam Shepard’s “True West”), or a swanky hotel room (Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite”) to a playwright and he will capture a world. Yes, there are hundreds more. They don’t all turn out memorable like the above, but something extraordinary happens as we watch characters often in a state of unhappiness being forced to confront their fears in a one confined place. When the characters and their pain ring true, we reach out to them as much as they reach out to us. Native New Yorker and Princeton University graduate Tristine Skyler has written a very good first play, “The Moonlight Room,” which takes place over the course of one night in a New York City hospital waiting room.

“The Moonlight Room,” has begun an open ended Off-Broadway engagement on Theatre Row following its well-received limited showcase premiere at the TriBeCa Playhouse. It may not be a revelation when it comes to the genre of realism, but it is a genuinely arresting drama, propelled by compelling characters. It is also notably buoyed by dialogue that doesn’t reek of either lyrical or edgy pretensions.

This play just simply stuns us by being honest, real, and genuinely affecting. Two 16-year-olds — Sal (played by Princeton University student Laura Breckenridge) and Joshua (Brenden Sexton III) — have spent a night on the town and are now waiting for word from the medical staff about their friend Lightfield, who has overdosed on drugs.

It is the middle of the night and their anxieties run high as they question and comfort each other with the kind of small digressive talk that brings vividness to their testy but close friendship. Both Sal and Joshua speak to each other in a way that immediately defines them as urban independents, slightly reckless, cynical, defensive, and still sadly vulnerable and appealing, especially as they speak of Lightfield, whose presence is felt but never seen. Yet it is the telling ways that Sal and Joshua articulate their feelings about their families and friends that provide the strongest link to their feelings of alienation. Less subtle but evocative is the way that their teen-specific body language reveals who they are and what they are focused on.

At first, there is a deceptive insouciance to Laura Breckenridge’s performance as Sal. It doesn’t last long. Her feelings begin to surface as she reveals more of the rage she feels and directs toward her mother. The arrival of Sal’s mother, Mrs. Kelly (Kathryn Layng), sheds a discomforting light on the noticeably strained relationship she has with her daughter. While Sal is clearly uncomfortable with her mother’s disapproving attitude and resentful presence, it is the mother’s all consuming persistent bitterness over a long ago divorce that has mostly alienated Sal. Layng is especially convincing as the parent with no clue how to reach out from beyond her own self-pity.

Skyler’s play continues to build up steam in unexpected ways with the arrival of Mr. Wells, Lightfield’s father (excellently portrayed by Lawrence James), who refuses to acknowledge the real cause of his son’s behavior, and puts the blame for his son’s critical condition squarely on his friends, particularly Joshua, who has been estranged from his family and locked out of his own home.

The savvy but insecure Joshua, who once showed potential as a chess champion, now relies on his recklessly deployed defenses to survive. You won’t soon forget Sexton’s fidgety hyper-tense performance, as he makes frequent and frantic calls to a friend from the waiting room pay phone and a foray to the car for beer. Sexton zeros in precisely on Joshua’s pain and his barely insinuated, but deep, affection for Sal.

Providing a touch of oddball humor is Adam (Mark Rosenthal), Joshua’s half brother, a doctor of awesome intelligence with an ability to explain bodily functions only in the most technical terms. When Sal tells Adam, who is trying to be as supportive as he can, that biology, particularly DNA, is her favorite subject in high school, Adam answers with one long text book sentence that manages to explain deoxyribonucleic acid, polynucleotide chains, double helix structure, and hydrogen bonding. Rosenthal’s dry and emotionless performance is right on target as a doctor devoid of any compassion or bedside manner.

The wonder of Skyler’s play is not only the way it paints a right on/no-frills portrait of middle class urban teens in distress but the way it makes us feel and question what is really going here. Often the mark of a good director is his ability to make the life that happens on stage real and convincing. Jeff Cohen, the artistic director of the Worth Street Theater Company, obviously has focused his attention on the details of human behavior. He has done an exemplary job. Skyler’s fine play does the rest.

— Simon Saltzman

The Moonlight Room, The Beckett Theater on Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Tickets $45. 212-239-6200

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