theater review

Little Shop of Blah-Blah: Theresa Rebeck’s Dig

Jeffrey Bean and Andrea Syglowski in Theresa Rebeck’s Dig.
Jeffrey Bean and Andrea Syglowski in Theresa Rebeck’s Dig. Photo: James Leynse

Sometimes, in watching a play, you get the surreal, frictionless feeling of seeing one event after another pile up in front of you without a sense of why it’s all happening. The characters may explain their motivations, and there might be a sort of structural logic to the thing, but the action you’re watching is disjointed from actual human behavior — like you’re watching them speed by through the windows of a train. When trying to explain why a character made such-and-such decision — say, when talking to your friend after a performance — you fall back on excuses like, “Well, I guess that’s just what the playwright decided to do.”

Such is the experience of watching Dig, Theresa Rebeck’s play about a small-town plant shop. It comes with a lot of potted action, very little of it able to take emotional root. Roger (Jeffrey Bean) is the grump who owns the shop, which happens to be named Dig (one character bafflingly insists that’s a bad name for a plant store because “you don’t actually know what kind of store that might be”) and which also happens to be failing because what else ever happens to a small business in a play? His friend Lou (Triney Sandoval) has a troubled daughter, Megan (Andrea Syglowski), who’s in recovery and recently left prison after being jailed for accidentally killing her infant son.

Rebeck (of Bernhardt/Hamlet, Mauritius, and, yes, season one of Smash, plus a lot more TV work) tends to favor a concept-forward approach, underlining her metaphors to the extent that they overshadow the people she’s writing about. In this case, the theme is explicated in the first scene: Lou brings Roger a plant that he has nearly killed by under and then overwatering, Roger begrudgingly tells him, “It’s fine. I can save this plant.” Guess what? He’ll also try to do the same with Megan, and he lets her volunteer at the store to provide routine and purpose. At first, she’s spiky and unstable — she lashes out at a customer in predictable “You don’t know me!” fashion — but she soon helps him spruce up the shop, improving his customer service and convincing him to stock some overpriced orchids. Eventually, in a development that made my heart pang in sympathy with Syglowski as a performer, she considers a romantic relationship with him.

The play continues like that, each new development clangingly obvious on the level of plot and baffling on the level of character. The cast members are generally able in individual scenes—I enjoyed Syglowski’s tangled slinky of nerves early on—but they struggle to make coherent sense of the way Rebeck’s plot forces them to bend in strange directions. Rebeck, who’s directing her own work, isn’t much help on that front. Greg Keller, a standout in so many Off Broadway productions, works uphill as a stoner comic-relief employee who hates Megan at first (and later on, suddenly enables her), and Mary Bacon does what she can with a talkative, initially judgmental Christian customer. In the case of Megan, there’s something to a play that asks what it would take to rehabilitate a person trying to process such tremendous guilt, but even there, Rebeck doesn’t stick to her own convictions. As the plot keeps speeding forward, Rebeck introduces new information about the circumstances of Megan’s crime that potentially absolve her and invalidate the premise of the play. If we’re not here to watch a redemption plot, what exactly are we here for?

After watching Dig, it’s hard to say. But I will admit that the design of the store itself (by Christopher and Justin Swader) looks pretty appealing. They’ve put a cute little serifed logo over the door and houseplants in homey ceramics ring the stage. The cozy vibe undermines a lot of the dialogue about how the store is failing (I’d happily buy a plant or two there), but it does work as a convincing facsimile of a lived-in place that a bunch of people might care deeply about. I worried, stepping around the pots at the front of the stage to make my way to the bathroom at intermission, that I might knock one over and accidentally mangle one of the plants in the process — before I noticed that all the plants, much like the characters, are unmistakably plastic.

Dig is Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters.

Little Shop of Blah-Blah: Theresa Rebeck’s Dig