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Previews: 02/09/12- Close: 03/03/12 The Navigator
Reviewed for By: Shari Perkins

Gerry Goodstein ©2020  Kelly Anne Burns and Joseph Franchini

In a time of widespread unemployment, gut-wrenching debt, rampant home foreclosures, and families fracturing under the pressure of a financial crunch the like of which Americans have not experienced since the 1930s, it is easy to feel powerless and paralyzed. What if we could know what the right choice is at the each and every intersection in our lives? What if we could find a map to guide us out of our troubles—by winning the lotto, betting on the right team, or knowing exactly how to negotiate a job offer, should one ever come?

This is the fantasy that Eddie Antar's new play The Navigator explores with mixed results in its current production at the WorkShop Theater Company. Antar's plot focuses on the adventures of Dave, a down-on-his-luck father whose whole life has been thrown off course: he is unemployed, about to lose his home, and incapable of communicating effectively with his frazzled, overwhelmed wife, Lilly. Lacking any confidence in his own decision-making, Dave is at a standstill even as he speeds down interstates, squinting towards a future he can never quite grasp. Clarity is something he fears he will never attain, even as he chronically forgets to wear his glasses. Suddenly, his life takes a turn for the better when his car's GPS begins telling him what choices to make in every circumstance, from financial investments to child-rearing all the way down to what he should eat for dinner each night. Yet the temptation is threatening as well: assured of always making the right choice, Dave gives up control over his life and increasingly isolates himself from his family, turning to a machine for the support and self-confidence he so desperately needs.

The production, directed by Leslie Kincaid Burby, makes a charming and humorous evening of entertainment. Its premise requires the two central characters, Dave (Joseph Franchini) and the Navigator (Kelly Anne Burns), to remain seated downstage center in a facsimile of a car for the majority of the play—a conceit that threatens a static production. Fortunately, set designer Jen Varbalow, assisted by lighting designer Duane Pagano, have come up with visually interesting solution that is reminiscent of iconic split-screen telephone conversations from film and television. By creating raised cubicles behind a black scrim, Varbalow and Pagano successfully open up the world of the play: as Dave calls each of his contacts, the homes of his friends and family appear, floating in light bubbles behind him. His stock broker and friend, Al (Michael Gnat), inhabits a vivid green home office, while Lilly's (Nicole Taylor) domain is a peach-painted corner of a suburban home, complete with a bulletin board full of calendars, to-do lists, and other household reminders. The black void which surrounds Dave's car contrasts poignantly with the vividness of the world from which he has cut himself off. Although no designer is credited, the costuming choices indicate the changes in Dave and Lilly's financial fortunes and allow Gnat and Taylor to easily double as other characters.

Gerry Goodstein ©2020  Joseph Franchini & Nicole Taylor

The Navigator benefits from its strong cast, especially Burns in the title role, who steals the show with her impassive expression and her perfect vocal impersonation of a computerized GPS system. Whether dialing phone numbers with a tic of her head, mechanically repeating her prognostications, stoically listening to Dave's deepest pains and anxieties, or usefully serving as a cup holder, Burns's Navigator never becomes humanized or mystical. Meanwhile, Franchini's open face poignantly reveals Dave's uncertainty and pain as he grows first dependent upon, then resentful of his unexpected source of guidance.

While uniformly diverting and amusing, The Navigator fails to flesh out the central shift in the play's—and the lead character's—plot. If Dave's core problem is his inability to make any kind of decision due to one monumental and costly past misjudgment, at what point is his wound healed and why does that change come about? If he begins to resent the Navigator's presence and directives (as he clearly does), at exactly what point does its mechanized guidance begin to grate? These are moments which are lacking. Instead of seeing the moment of conflict, we only see the result. Although Dave explains himself, his explanation comes too late, without a sense that he has learned enough to navigate life on his own.

It is unclear whether this is a failing of the script or of Burby's direction, which is otherwise crisp. It is a shame that Dave's character never truly transforms—that in the end he chooses the joy of uncertainty rather than healing the shattered trust in his own judgement and discernment. It is surprising that after four incarnations, neither Antar, nor Burby, nor the non-credited costume designer realized that the seed for symbolizing Dave's inner growth was planted in the very first scene. In conversation with Lilly he pointedly mentions forgetting his glasses, an omission which renders him completely dependent on his GPS to make it home. Those glasses never appear over the ensuing seventy-five minutes. By the mere introduction of a single personal prop and by clearly articulating the moment when Dave's relationship with the Navigator changes, Antar's play could have offered a far more satisfying conclusion. Instead, we are left with the sense that Dave is still driving blind.

Workshop Theater : 312 West 36th Street