Christopher Nolan's Inception is one of those films that seemingly captured the public imagination for a season before becoming, well, just another well-received blockbuster that few people talk about anymore. In part, it's because despite Inception's mind-bending visuals, in the end the film was a parlor trick, a sleight-of-hand meditation on the very nature of film itself — that few recognized.
Nolan's deep-dive into the subconscious is, once you discard all the bells and whistles, a story about a guy — in this case, most likely the writer-director of The Dark Knight trilogy himself — who happens to have a really good idea for a movie while on a trans-Pacific flight: let's make a movie about making movies and disguise it as a sci-fi head-scratcher that will leave audiences chattering about what it was they just saw.
The latest from What If? Productions, roger&tom, is a little like Inception. On the one hand, audiences are going to see it and go, WTF just happened, while others will appreciate the play for its sly critique — and yes, celebration — of black box theater, a genre in which sometimes very small family melodramas are treated with all the pomp and circumstance as Wagner's Ring Cycle.
For writer Julien Schwab, roger&tom was written for black-box fanboys and haters at the same time. "When I first wrote it, I was a senior in college, so I was still pie-in-the-sky optimistic about theater and art — oh, you can do no wrong as long as it's artistically viable and worthy. As I got older and did many, many drafts of it over the course of 10 or 12 years, it did become a critique," Schwab says. "At some point along the line, I realized it was a show for people who love theater and a show for people who kind of hate theater too, and I count myself in both of those categories, as someone who can see its power, but also sometimes it's a little bit melodramatic and over the top."
Make no mistake, roger&tom is a play about, well, plays, and through a portion of the first section of it, you might not realize that's what you're watching. Instead, at first you'll have little difficulty believing that the drama you're watching is no different than the countless other dramas you've watched unfold in the dark confines of a small theater. After all the plot is simple enough: a husband and wife are separating, and the husband is moving out. The wife's alcoholic brother is back in town, at the request of their playwright brother. The two haven't spoken for years, over some fight or disagreement or some other typical run-of-the-mill argument that normally fuels these productions. And in order not to upset the alcoholic older brother, the wife and her now estranged husband decide to hide their separation.
However, what began as a play with a simple M. Night Shyamalan twist — wait, why is Roger sitting in the audience with us — quickly dives headfirst into the meta-fiction rabbit hole, as Schwab explores and exploits the conventions of typical black-box melodrama. Through it all, it's clear that the writer is just having fun; after all, one of the best gags involves a character walking through an imaginary, yet very real, wall, at least for another character. "My favorite kind of theater is theater that is entertaining.," Schwab says. "It's not enough to just make the audience think or to make them feel something. I prefer to have it entertaining as well, especially with the straight plays, as opposed to the musicals. I think that's something they've failed to do a lot of the time."
These days, Schwab has left the theater world behind in favor of a life in TV. He's produced several pilots at this point, but so far none have been picked up. Still, it's evident that he has found his true calling. His relationship with theater was always something of a strained one. With TV, it's drastically different. "My parents exposed me to all sorts of things growing up — ballet, theater, we watched all sorts of movies, TV, they made sure I was exposed to all of this stuff," he says. "What called to me about TV was the long-form storytelling."
He adds, "I don't know if I've ever been punched in the gut quite as much as when I've completed watching a TV series I love, whether it's Six Feet Under or Friday Night Lights or Breaking Bad. I don't think there is any comparable experience in movies or theater that leaves me quite as rattled."
Another reason why Schwab gravitates toward TV these days: it let's him scratch his genre itch. "The pilots I write are extremely based in character development but are in the kinds of worlds that can only be shown in movies and television, whether it's in the future or just in a setting that doesn't necessarily come across easily on stage."
While that may be the case, judging by roger&tom Schwab is more than adept at taking genre concepts and putting them in the black box. And if he has to destroy the fourth wall — or any other imaginary walls — in the process, so be it.