Theater Review | ‘The Moonlight Room’: Youth and Sadness in a Hospital Waiting Room

November 5, 2003

Well, maybe youth isn’t always wasted on the young. That’s the exciting news emanating from the tiny Worth Street Theater in TriBeCa, where “The Moonlight Room,” a first play by Tristine Skyler, 32, is announcing the arrival of a precocious talent.

What is unusual and heartening about Ms. Skyler, a native New Yorker (her brother, Edward, is Mayor Bloomberg’s press secretary), is that rather than being seduced by the distractions of techno-video-special-effects stimuli, she
seems to have spent her not-yet-completed youth paying attention. Her play, set in the waiting area of the emergency room at a New York hospital, has none of the qualities ordinarily associated with “a new voice.”

She’s not examining youth culture in a way that feels shocking or revelatory. She doesn’t hear the language in a quirky way, hasn’t invented a new idiom. No light is being shined on an up-to-now-hidden corner of society. There’s no
futuristic chill in the air; a beeper is the most technologically advanced device employed in the script.

Remarkably enough, “The Moonlight Room” relies on other, more substantive, tried-and-true devices: sharply observed characters, a credibly complicated and suspenseful situation with high stakes and an unashamed realism that in
this case depicts a slice of New York that theatergoers will recognize as authentic. “The Moonlight Room” is about single parents and their teenagers and the precariousness of their relationships. It’s a sad play, not so much
because of what happens to its sympathetic characters but because their troubles are presented as almost inevitable, a lamentable outcome of an age-old conflict in a contemporary age.

The play, directed with simplicity and clarity by Jeff Cohen, opens with a familiar scenario. Two 16-year-olds, Sal (Laura Breckenridge) and Joshua (Brendan Sexton III), are worriedly consoling and distracting each other in the
middle of the night as they await word on the condition of their friend Lightfield, who has overdosed on drugs. (The most unrealistic thing about the play is that they are alone; there don’t seem to be any other emergencies being tended to at the hospital.)

But what immediately distinguishes “The Moonlight Room” is the quality of the conversation. Both Sal, a talented but unfocused student, and Joshua, a former child chess champion who has run off the tracks of promise, are bright and witty, and at pains to articulate the agonizing cynicism of youth.

Their familiarity with and freedom to roam the city, their casually renegade sensibility, their strained relations with parents: all of these do battle with their
traditionally good-kid instincts to send off signals of deep unhappiness and fear. And these generic qualities are given distinct and sensationally personal shadings by Ms. Skyler in the most pitch perfect, middle-class teenage dialogue that I’ve encountered. Even Lightfield, who never appears, takes on a palpable identity, simply through the unrelated nuggets of knowledge that Sal and Josh reveal about him, which is just one way in which the two young actors make their own characters rivetingly three-dimensional.

That Josh, a wonderfully articulate speaker and quick-to-segue thinker who is both sweet-tempered at heart and sliding off his moorings, will come to some sort of grief is perfectly foreshadowed in the barely controlled jitters and underlying shyness given him by Mr. Sexton. And it’s equally clear, from the stress that knits Ms. Breckenridge’s eyebrows from the start and the
too-easy-to-forgive manner that she affects to characterize Sal’s unrequited affection for Josh, that Sal’s hold on psychic equanimity is going to be seriously tested.

Another reason “The Moonlight Room” is so impressive is that it continues to evolve in unexpected ways. Each of the following three scenes introduces a character, and not one you’d necessarily predict.

First we meet Sal’s mother (Kathryn Layng), an embittered woman who can’t get over her husband’s leaving her and unwittingly takes her despondency out on her only child. Next we meet Mr. Wells (Lawrence James), Lightfield’s father, whose anguish over his son’s predicament is compounded by his utter blindness to his son’s self-destructive habits. Finally, after intermission, we meet Adam, a doctor who is also Joshua’s step-brother, and who is given a terrifically persuasive and oddball performance by Mark Rosenthal, as the essence of compassion with a tin ear. His explications of bodily functions, delivered with a multisyllabic vocabulary and an earnest pedantry, are hilarious.

As the characters enter, they layer the world of the play in a way that many people experience the layering of their personal lives when strangers become pertinent, when acquaintances of acquaintances suddenly assert their presence, when circumstances turn the status quo inside out and the periphery becomes central. The conclusion – which is appropriately, teasingly ambiguous – leaves you both hopeful and fearful, a dichotomy of feeling about living in the city that in itself is spot-on realistic these days.

Ms. Skyler doesn’t escape all the pitfalls of a fledgling writer. A handful of times she calls the action to a halt for someone to deliver a character-defining speech, and the play seems shockingly, if temporarily, to slam on the brakes. Mr. Wells has the most leaden of these, and Ms. Skyler seems to know him less well than she knows her other creations. But an excess of literate speech is a small caveat, especially in a play that emphasizes character and language over plot and stagecraft.

Mr. Cohen’s direction is wisely restrained. The set is simple and wan; there is no musical or sound accompaniment, and silences are given their full due. He’s gotten poignant performances from all five of his actors. Both he and they clearly understand that Ms. Skyler has written a play that is theatrical only insofar as its words are. And they are.


By Tristine Skyler; directed by Jeff Cohen; sets by Marion Williams; costumes by Kim Gill; lighting by Scott Bolman; sound by Laura Grace Brown; technical director, Ron L. Voller; assistant stage manager, Mary Archbold; production stage manager, Michal V. Mendelson. Presented by the Worth Street Theater Company and Solecist Productions. At the TriBeCa Playhouse, 111 Reade Street.

WITH: Laura Breckenridge (Sal), Brendan Sexton III (Joshua), Kathryn Layng (Mrs. Kelly), Lawrence James (Mr. Wells) and Mark Rosenthal (Adam).

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company