Nicole Beerman, Joe Varca, and Megan Hill in "Cut"

Welcome to the machine.

Cut by Crystal Skillman is a theatrical piece about TV, a play about the seriousness of the entertainment industry, a post-modern meditation on Post-modernism. If that sounds like a lot to chew on, it is. Cut is a theatrical essay on the socially constructed nature of “reality,” the brass ring to which all serious artists aspire. And Ms. Skillman has fostered a reputation as a downtown playwright who isn’t afraid to take on The Big Questions. Take, for instance, her play The Vigil or the Guided Cradle, a play about the universality and timelessness of torture in the human experience. The “cut” of the play’s title is its guiding metaphor. A “cut” is what an editor does to film to create a story; what your boss does to your job to save his own skin; and – the cruelest cut of all – what the critic does to put you in your place.

The story focuses on three young-ish culture industry serfs: a film editor, a story editor, and the lowly archivist who logs all the footage shot for a vapid reality TV show about depraved housewives. The three have one day to come up with a new cut of their assigned episode to satisfy the show’s depraved producers or they lose their jobs. In the process the three reveal their secret motivations and quirky personalities. The dramatic mechanisms for these revelations are standard Po-Mo fare: a lot of hyperventilating, fast talking, and non-linear cuts back and forth in time. It is a tale full of sound an fury, to be sure, as if Satre’s No Exit had a love child with any Aaron Spelling production. The actors, Joe Varca, Megan Hill, and Nicole Beerman, play their parts professionally, and the director Meg Sturiano does a yeoman like job keeping the action moving and the jokes firing on cue.

Without a doubt, Cut is entertaining. The audience laughed at all the right times, and the schmaltzy love story did not induce (many) eye rolls (as far as I could tell). It is true, most of the plot points have a stock feel, like the film editor whose beloved sister is lost in Michigan and off her meds, or the serious theatrical artist whose career as a child genius playwright was torpedoed by her selfish husband and the barbaric entertainment industry. But that appears to be the point, as two of the characters explain when they talk about how to craft a dramatic narrative by focusing on the central, deeply held and secret motivation of a character. It’s heady stuff, seeing characters in a play consciously construct themselves. But that’s what this particular Big Question calls for.

By now we late Post-moderns are acclimated to this kind of vertiginous self-reflexivity. Anyone who has had the entertaining misfortune to hang out with literary types (unemployed Ph Ds, comic book enthusiasts, dramatists, and anyone on the L train) knows how much idle talk is devoted to analyzing narrative structure. You don’t have to be Charlie Kaufman to get lost in a labyrinth of your own construction. As Danno, the film editor, eloquently explains, being someone means being able to organize other people’s identities to your own purposes. This is what the entertainment industry does: it makes “real” people out of ordinary people. But Ms. Skillman has grounded her indictment of identity bending cultural capitalism in the small-time reality of  her characters’ secret motivations and quirky personalities. She tacitly asserts that being ordinary – being in love, being in pain, being “an everyday Joe” – is to be real. That might be true in a world where there are plenty of resources for individuals to exploit, but in a world where commodities are scarce, where the most important commodity is recognition available only through the fame machine that produces it, an aristocracy develops – the aristocracy of Fame. Personal pain is just as meaningless and unrecognized as poverty. This is the big question that Cut addresses obliquely but shies away from at the critical moment.

The leftovers of this failed attempt at deconstruction build up piles of real and intangible clutter on the stage. The characters’ motivations become contrived in the attempt to fill them out; the plot adds complication after complication to overcome the inertia of the concept; and even the stage becomes full of claustrophobia-inducing papers and furniture. This is not a cut against the playwright, however; this is how Post-modernism attempts to recoup the austere emptiness of Moderism’s brush with existential angst. Witness David Foster Wallace’s footnotes, or Thomas Pynchon’s logorrhea. And in the last analysis, all that stuff ends up being shaped by the artist into the same dramatic forms that have been around since time immemorial. Cut is just as structured and pre-modern in its execution as anything Aristotle prescribed in his Poetics. It is a well-oiled set piece, a gear in the culture industry machine. Though it aims for edgy, the production is, as Andy Webster put it in his New York Times review, “polished.” And that is, for a downtown playwright, the cruelest cut of all.