Review: ‘At the Table’ is exactly the art we need right now

Southwest Michigan is host to a variety of wonderful theater — professional light-hearted summer fare, often of the musical variety, and edgy, boundary-pushing new work from small, pop-up new companies abounds. However, it’s rare to find new, deeply relevant work of a professional quality, and to come upon such a production is to realize one’s hunger for it.

This is the terrifically satisfying experience of taking in “At the Table,” the poignant 2015 Off Off Broadway premiere by Michael Perlman on offer from Exit Left, a young theater company in Holland on a mission to bring innovative, challenging work that instigates conversations that continue long after the curtain closes.

Mission accomplished with the current production, beautifully directed by Richard Perez and staged in Brew Merchant pub’s banquet room cum black box theater. The pop-up location suits the script and production perfectly as it’s transformed into the comfortably upscale country home where a thirtysomething group of “diverse” friends reconnect annually over an extended weekend that’s “like a hazing.”

Interrogating the true meaning of diversity, the word so often thrown around by well-intentioned white people, is what this play is about, but in a sophisticated and thoughtful way that moves beyond identity politics and shows how unexamined privilege and assumptions cause such tremendous pain, especially among people who truly love and care for each other. It gets at the heart of the difficulty of difference and why many of us must step up — even if we’re not invited to the table — and do the work.

It’s a monumental feat, one that’s needed badly, and done here with laugh-out-loud humor and spiritedness as well as appropriate gravitas.

There’s the know-it-all neo-liberal, the feminist, the black folks, the white folks (including a Jew); there’s the Asian, the gay potential couple, the bisexual who prefers to evade definition, the unapologetic straight people, women, and men. They have dynamic debates about abortion and slavery and being on the wrong side of history; they play Cards Against Humanity; they openly call each other out and offend each other’s sensibilities and question each other’s identities and self righteousness.

Alcohol and pot-fueled late nights and coffee-injected mornings after are when it unfolds, and big, lively fast-paced group arguments and conversations in which huge personalities talk over each other are interspersed with intimate two-person scenes and make for excellent pacing.

The entire ensemble is beautifully cast and play their respective roles convincingly and with terrific verisimilitude. There’s not a single weakness among this eight-person cast, but a stand-out, pure genius performance comes from Exit Left Founder and Producer Jamie Colburn as hilarious real-talker Elliot whose Seussian existential crisis under the influence. And it’s structurally matched in the script by the profoundly moving come-to-Jesus monologue from Lauren who awkwardly thinks through her racial identity and challenges everyone in the room. So terribly true to life, it’s the black woman who ultimately does the heavy lifting for the entire group, and at great personal cost. If Akia Smith’s performance doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, you’re not paying attention.

Sometimes a show is so good it feels like a revelation — in the perfect time and place. For Exit Left’s production of “At the Table,” the brilliant script comes to life with truly excellent performances under inspired direction, and it more than delivers on this young company’s intention to get people talking in a way that might actually lead to some change.

At the Table
Exit Left Theatre Co.
May 31-June 10