“Cat’s Paw” by William Mastrosimone, Theatre Pro Rata’s new offering showing at the Gremlin Theater, paints a “what if” world ignited by pressing ecological issues and fueled by the media’s obsession with ratings. Eco-terrorists—or “eco-warriors,” as the leader (Victor) of Earth Now! prefers—have detonated a car bomb in Washington D.C., killing several senators, producing mayhem in the capitol and igniting copycat acts of violence across the country.
Victor, played by David Beukema, has his girlfriend and compatriot, Cathy (Katie Willer) kidnap a prominent local television journalist, Jessica Lyons, trusting that she will want this story of the moment badly enough to tolerate the circumstances. He’s right about that. But she’s also thrown into the bargaining the release of Victor’s hostage, David Darling (Nathan Tylutki). Darling, we learn, is an accountant who tweaked the numbers to get industrial polluters off the hook in a water quality matter—and pure water is the issue for Earth Now!
So who are the bad guys, really? This play sets up a slippery continuum of good and bad, sliding back and forth along it towards its terrible conclusion. (Of note: the play predates 9-11 and the Oklahoma City bombings.)
David Beukema plays the seemingly principled Victor with baby-faced calm. We’re intrigued by how he can so perfectly contain the fury that has precipitated the day’s terrible events. When it is unleashed in front of us at last, Beukema has still not let go completely of his chilling façade. This was a polished performance.
Katherine Kupiecki as the journalist I thought needed to be at least a little rattled at first, and she might have created a character with more dimension by simply taking more time to think about what was going on. I really wanted to see the psychological process this hard-boiled reporter used to get control of the situation, at least intermittently. She is, after all, the hostage of a killer. Rather, the early conversations had the puzzling air of a sitcom. As the story unfolds, however, Kupiecki’s wise-cracking demeanor starts to melt—not much, but it does, and she begins to appear less two-dimensional.
Director Carin Bratlie missed a couple of opportunities to put us on the edge of our seats earlier in the play. Notably, Cathy’s first monologue that, as written, is a like a loaded gun lying in Cathy’s lap. As performed, it just went by too fast. It was Willer’s chance to foreshadow her awful end, but it didn’t take us there. Perhaps Bratlie didn’t want to give out too much too soon, but this speech was put there—at this particular moment—for a reason. So use it! Willer proved, ultimately, that she’s got the stuff to throttle us emotionally; I think that speech could have been a game-changer.
Mastrosimone has written Darling as the one character who is appropriately unhinged by it all; Tylutki swings crazily between complete submission and surprisingly coherent explanations of his company’s alleged criminal behavior. He made even the inconsistencies in the script work to his advantage to provide the afternoon’s most compelling performance.
Overall, this production offers an absorbing story and concept right from the beginning. As the characters’ pasts get turned inside out, and violence turns on itself, the build to its powerful conclusion is oddly satisfying.
Cat’s Paw runs about 1 ½ hours and plays without intermission, through September 25. Recommended.