Small Box Psychosis

Theatre Upstairs presents 'Small Box Psychosis' by Barry McKinley. Photo: Fiona Bonnie

Theatre Upstairs presents 'Small Box Psychosis' by Barry McKinley. Photo: Fiona Bonnie

In an issue of the New Yorker from 2008, journalist Nick Paumgarten details one of the most horrific elevator stories I’ve ever heard: that of Business Week journalist Nicholas White, whose lift stalled between floors in the 43-storey McGraw-Hill Building late one Friday evening in 1999 and did not become unstuck for another 41 hours. Of all modern transport, perhaps we take the miracle of elevator travel – a journey in a claustrophobic box suspended above a black void by a piece of cable – far too much for granted.

In Small Box Psychosis, which is currently running at lunchtime at the Theatre Upstairs, playwright Barry McGinley uses lift anxiety as a tool for hallucinatory social commentary. Mr Schacht (Rory Mullen) is your run-of-the-mill ageing professional who’s forced to move beyond the normal banalities with his apartment building’s elevator operator Charlie (Finbarr Doyle) after an outage finds the two of them stuck together for longer than either had bargained for. There’s nothing in the first few minutes of polite interaction to suggest what eventually comes: the death threats, the crack cocaine smoking, the appearance of an unemployed cross-dressing elevator operator named Eddie (Simon Toal). It’s a credit to McKinley’s abilities as a playwright that he packed so much absurdity into one small lift.

There are clear overtones of Charles Durang’s vision of deranged urban life in Small Box Psychosis. (As an aside, it is perhaps unfortunate that it’s impossible to situate a comedy like this in Ireland due to the nation’s lack of tall apartment buildings.) McKinley brings us to a New York we all know, or think we know, a place where people live side-by-side in apartment buildings without really knowing much about anyone, and where the trips from their front door to the world are negotiated by professional elevator operators.

Photo: Fiona BonniePerhaps the greatest achievement of this production is the way director Sarah Finlay manages to conceive of the elevator space. There is no set as such, just a clever use of light and space. Yet even without the physical presence of a lift, the actors manage to convey a sense of desperate, uncomfortable intimacy simply by occupying the space around them. The performances here are all strong: Mullen nails the straight man Mr Schacht, oblivious to nefarious turnings of the world around him, and deserves credit for performing half of the play in his underwear. Doyle squeezes every bit of unsettling lunacy out of Charlie. But the star turn is most clearly Toal as Eddie, a recently-fired elevator operator who lives in the building’s boiler room. He somehow manages to enter the stalled elevator, and does so wearing the red-sequinned cocktail dress of Schacht’s wife.

And just when Small Box Psychosis seems on the verge of hurtling into all-out nonsense, McKinley pulls it all back with a cleverly-orchestrated conclusion. Beyond a curiosity with the strange social conventions enacted in lifts, the playwright has a broader objective: an interest in exploring the gulf of understanding between social classes. An elevator is quite a small box to extract insight on the world, but this successful romp manages to entertain while casting a hilarious, if menacing, eye at relations between the rich and poor.

Donald Mahoney

The Last Crusader by Barry McKinley is running simultaneously at Theatre Upstairs (evenings). Read Donald Mahoney's review here.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Small Box Psychosis by Barry McKinley

2 - 13 April 2013

Produced by Theatre Upstairs
In Theatre Upstairs @ Lanigan's

Directed by Sarah Finlay

Set & Lighting Design: Laura Honan and Andy Cummins 

Costume Design: Sinead Kelly

With: Rory Mullen, Finbarr Doyle and Simon Toal