Review: “The Ice Cream Sandwich Incident” by Barry Eitel, presented by Faultline Theatre

Something wild and wonderful is happening in San Francisco right now. It goes by the name of The Ice Cream Sandwich Incident, and it’s an absolutely unmissable night of theatre. It’s impossible to say if you will actually like the play—it’s far too strange to be everyone’s cup of tea—but you owe it to yourself to see it with your own eyes. Love it or hate it, you certainly will not be able to forget it.

The show follows a team of four people participating in a simulated mission to deep space. The exact purpose of this simulation isn’t exactly known, but the company running the simulation claims to have a contract with NASA. Whether to prepare to be a real astronaut, gain some extra cash, or just escape from the world, every member of the team brings their own baggage as to why they have chosen to be there. The team has to spend an entire year together in close quarters, occasionally meeting up with the mission leader to discuss their issues with the other crew members. A wrench is thrown in their “family” dynamics when the captain of the crew finishes off the supply of a certain frozen dessert without telling the others.

From there, Barry Eitel’s play goes off in what seems to be a million different directions. There are several misdirects that lead the audience to believe that the play will follow many different stylistic routes, serving to diminish the audience’s sense of security in what it is seeing, which rather beautifully prepares the audience for the zaniness to come. Ultimately, it hones in on a form of absurdist comedy that feels quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s like if Harold Pinter and late-period Tennessee Williams wrote a play together, but stuck it in a blender and filtered it through the sensibility of Pee-Wee Herman. The ultimate effect is one so bizarre, I honestly wondered if I had fallen asleep and was watching my dream of what the play might be. But this is no dream, just pure theatrical insanity. And it’s thoroughly captivating and almost hysterically funny for much of its 2 hour runtime.

Something about the language of the play allows it to play with style and still maintain its effectiveness. The bizarre juxtaposition of humor styles allows for jokes that are not particularly original to gain a new sense of delirious energy. Audiences expect physical humor in a slapstick piece, anarchic humor in an absurdist piece, and wry humor in a satire. But how do you react when a piece seems to reinvent its own rules with every new line? Do you laugh or stare at it in wide-eyed amazement? I somehow did both simultaneously, my surprise contributing to my laughter, and my laughter contributing to my surprise. It’s one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve had all year.

That’s not to say the work is perfect. There are attempts at profundity towards the end that don’t entirely come off, and the piece struggles to achieve constant narrative thrust. But this is a brand new work, and to come right out of the gate with something this gleefully entertaining and with such a clear authorial voice is extremely impressive. I can imagine that with some fine-tuning, the piece may have  quite a bit of life beyond San Francisco.

Faultline Theatre has given the work a very impressive premiere production. The cast is uniformly excellent, giving ridiculously over-extended performances that, in a more traditional play, might be seen as hammy or unconvincing, but are perfect for the material. James Nelson has directed the piece with a deeply felt sense of the work’s own strangely hilarious rhythms, though his physical staging is slightly stunted, probably due to the unnecessarily cluttered set by Carlos Aceves. It’s rare to see any play be given a production of such understanding and clarity, and to see it in such a small space, where the actors are almost close enough to touch, is a very special experience.

Being such an aggressively off-kilter work, it requires you to get on the same wavelength as itself pretty quickly, or else you may quickly feel left in the dust. But the play’s utter uniqueness makes it an absolute must-see. You may love it like I did, or you may hate it. Either way, I doubt that you will be disappointed that you decided to see it.


The Ice Cream Sandwich Incident plays until August 27th at Pianofight. Information and tickets are available here.

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