By Andrew Andrews
The first dichotomy hits you when you enter the house: there, on You-Shin Chen’s masterfully-designed set of an ancient basement, Tuskegee Airman Michael Crawler (Anthony T. Goss) is already lying perfectly still, wrapped in bandages and occasionally moving only slightly, half-awake, to drink from a cup of water. Then, unexpectedly, Katrine (Alexandra Cohler), a French country maiden, enters through a rustic door and down the stairs to check his wounds and replenish the cup. You’re not quite sure if the show started early without you or this is just a prelude to the real story; if you’ve been lucky enough to catch The Play That Goes Wrong, it’s not unlike the stage crew’s antics before the “official” curtain, but with a serious, rather than humorous, tone.
Eventually, Matthew White (Ian Campbell Dunn) appears out of nowhere and climbs a different set of stairs to a platform above the audience, where he takes a seat behind a microphone and announces the opening of a radio show, officially beginning Basement with a reminder to silence your pocket telephones and vote for the performance using something called the “World Wide Web.” And so we have another dichotomy: the past and present brought together, for just a moment, in one small, intimate theater.
The story unfolds slowly, with Crawler slipping in and out of consciousness until he finally speaks unexpectedly, in English, to Katrine. But she only understands French, so they struggle to communicate as each teaches the other a new language. And so the fun (A.K.A. humor) begins as the drama of Crawler’s secret recovery continues to hold threat in the air when the Nazis come and go in search of the missing pilot. As the communication between caregiver and patient improves, we learn that Katrine—orphaned when her father and brother were captured by the Nazis and her mother died from the resulting trauma—witnessed Crawler’s plane crash in the countryside near her home and was compelled to come to his rescue, not even knowing, at that point, whether he was friend or foe.
The dichotomies continue as we learn of Crawler’s love for his Harlem home despite the problems he faced under America’s racial segregation, and Katrine’s love for her countryside regardless of its status as the place where her family was taken from her. And all of this pulls at your heartstrings, at one moment making you laugh out loud, minutes later trying to bring you to tears.
This is one of those shows with something for everyone: WWII drama, comedy, creative lighting effects (we’ve seen no better demonstration of the passing of time, thanks to “Lucky” Gilbert Pearto’s moving shadows and Janet Mervin’s many costume changes), creative sound effects (notice the record scratching over the radio, thanks to Andy Evan Cohen) and even a jazz dance or two (choreographed by Mary Baynard) that sends you straight back to the early 1940s. So check it out, then come back here and tell us how it made you feel. Your reviews will help others decide whether it’s something they’ll want to attend, and your ratings help us help you find future productions you’re sure to love!4
Andrew Andrews attended Basement at Gene Frankel Theatre in New York on Saturday, September 30, 2017 @ 8:00pm to write this review.