Review: Set Piece, by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon, for Rising.
Set Piece by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon explores female intimacy through the relationship between screen and stage, drawing inspiration from dinner party conversation, improvisation and lesbian pulp fiction. Its generic situation and looping repetition combine to stage a lesbian fantasy with a comedic anticlimax.
In theatre, a play can simply refer to a self-contained set piece. But it is also a genre term that suggests a scene or a formally composed speech. In film, a setting is sometimes defined as an elaborate scene “in which several plot elements are brought to a climax and resolved” (such as the final sequence of The Godfather, in which the Don’s enemies are slain).
But Marshall Thornton opposes this definition; rather, it links the filmic setting to its origins in vaudeville acts where comedians would have a collection of “set pieces” that they could play on demand, often several times a night. A setting is sometimes a highlight, argues Thornton, but the essential thing is that it stands on its own; rather than solving everything, “usually it’s something a bit tangential that could be taken out of your film”. Classic settings include food fights, weddings, and party scenes.
Randall and Breckon play with multiple definitions and connotations of a set piece. The whole play is the tangential scene. It is located at the end of the evening in an independent apartment with transparent walls.
The trendy apartment in a gentrified neighborhood is owned by a longtime lesbian couple played by Maude Davey and Dina Panozzo. Their guests are a young married lesbian couple played by Carly Sheppard and Randall. I immediately forgot the names of the characters, but that didn’t matter much: they are de-idealized or “compromised” lesbian archetypes more than fully realized characters.
Randall’s babbled drunkenness also seemed modeled after Honey from Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which loosely inspired Set Piece. Set Piece’s cross-generational seductions reference lesbian fantasy and explore queer possibilities for the “marital drama” genre, as Breckon and Randall note in their Q&A with Arts House. Indeed, one of the older characters briefly questions the young couple about whether marriage is still heteronormative, but the younger characters don’t respond beyond a brief annoyance and an assertion that “this no longer the case”.
The production treads lightly on this shift in perspective, which it juxtaposes with the eroticism of intergenerational relations.
The see-through set gives audiences and simulcast cameras views of mundane and erotic details: the characters use the restroom, bring snacks and drinks from the kitchen, dance, and seduce each other’s partners.
Although I usually find that using simulcast movies in the theater makes it hard for me to watch the actors live, that wasn’t the case here. It helped that I sat in the front row on the same level as the set and the screens were mounted above. The cameras were a reminder of the highly publicized nature of the seemingly intimate interior action.
They were also a source of comedic realism, especially when they provided a bird’s-eye view of what was arguably Set Piece’s finest bit: when Randall’s character, lying under a transparent table, painstakingly navigated a potato chip. the table to his mouth. The moment of drunken concentration perfectly encapsulated the feeling of a party coming to an end – the “end of the dregs of the night,” as Breckon described it in an interview.
While the characters are drunk and stoned, the actors are tightly choreographed, hitting their marks for the cameras and going through several iterations of the same scene, with slightly different dialogue and results each time. Breckon described looping iterations as a kind of “edging”, a sexual practice where one person moves closer or brings their partner to the brink of orgasm and then backs off, with the goal of making the eventual orgasm more intense.
But Set Piece builds a series of anti-climaxes: in its latest iteration, the characters of Sheppard and Panozzo finally have sex after an erotic buildup through the other loops. “They really go for it,” Randall’s character — who has donned a glass strap-on but wasn’t asked to participate — confides to Davey, a jaded writer who accepts everything with equanimity. But the piece casts doubt on whether someone achieves orgasm. “Did you…?” Sheppard says in the afterglow, and Panozzo responds, “I’m sorry…I’m just so drunk”.
Meanwhile, Davey and Randall share their own scene of comically failing to have sex. Randall, who is lying on the floor, asks if she can lick Davey’s ankle. “I think that would be nice,” Davey replies. They then try to kiss, but Randall finds out that she doesn’t want to continue. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s okay,” Davey replies.
When the young couple meet in front of the bathroom, Randall always wears the strap-on under his wine-stained button-up shirt. Sheppard laughed out loud – it didn’t sound like a mean laugh to me – and the scene faded away. It was the only time I believed the characters of Sheppard and Randall were married.
This deflationary ending undermines the lesbian fantasy with what Breckon and Randall call ordinary queer. The iterated edging and low-affect intimacy of Set Piece suggests that the uncanny possibilities of its wedding drama may lie in maintaining a tone where the emotion isn’t “pushed to a dramatic level.”
Set Piece is at the meat market until June 12th.