Saturday, December 20, 2014

Review: 'Automatic Fault Isolation'

The new play "Automatic Fault Isolation" loses its way when it begins, then somehow finds it way late. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews the Hella Fresh Theater production in Kensington.

Review: 'Automatic Fault Isolation'

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By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

I say something, you respond, I respond, we talk, we go on and on, we get off into tangents, we lose a thread of thoughts when something triggers us to take a new path, to pursue another idea. That’s a conversation.

It works in real life.

Not so much in theater.

Normal conversation can, in fact, can be deadly in theater, where the trick is to make focused dialogue sound normal. So after the first 15 minutes of John Rosenberg’s new play, Automatic Fault Isolation, I was wondering when thing would come into focus after a long round of drifting conversation by characters — a man who may or may not be an astronaut and a woman who may still be a girl.

The play opened Saturday and is being performed on weekend afternoons at Papermill Theater in Kensington, where Rosenberg heads the company called Hella Fresh Theater. The plot finally did come into its own way too late in the 75-minute production,  as compelling in its last 15 minutes as it is aimless in its first 15.

In any case, the bulk of the production is  well acted. Rosenberg, who also directed,  plays an employee of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where Automatic Fault Isolation takes place in 1965. The title refers to an actual space engineering project.

Anna Flynn-Meketon portrays the high-school girl — at least her character seems to be one — who has lured him to a motel, and Sean Cummings solidly plays a character who comes into play during the last part of Automatic Fault Isolation.

Rosenberg plays his role as a befuddled adult who doesn’t know how to relate to the girl he is with. That’s apt — he’s written her as tempestuous and senseless, with the skills of a manipulator far beyond her age. In Flynn-Meketon’s portrayal, she is shrill enough for her dialogue to sometimes garble in her higher decibels, but she plays the part for all it’s worth.

What she cannot overcome is her too-old appearance: Flynn-Meketon looks far more like an adult than a kid. Yet the way Rosenberg wrote his play, the audience must guess for a long while at her relationship to this outer-space worker, and unless she’s obviously much younger than the guy, we haven’t a chance of being anything but confused.

The play works after it gets to the point — that the girl has an ulterior motive in asking him there. It also gets steadily better as it picks up tension, but I never could figure out what would attract even a very lonely adult to this capricious, dangerous kid. She’s far too much of a risk for a tryst — especially in the South and in the ‘60s — and, as Rosenberg writes the character, the mouth you have to put up with is not worth so much as a kiss.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
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Automatic Fault Isolation: Presented by Hella Fresh Theater at Papermill Theater, 2825 Ormes St., through June 24. Tickets: $10. Information: www.thepapermilltheater.com.

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.


Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.


Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.


Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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