One superb actor. Six fascinating characters. Ninety minutes of compelling
and thought-provoking drama. This is The Common Air, sure to be
remembered at year’s end as one of the finest solo performances of 2008.


The amazing Alex Lyras embodies a) an Iraqi cab driver in New York
carrying on a non-stop chat with a passenger, b) a gay art gallery owner
recalling a moment of cowardice, c) a manic attorney making a deal, d) a
hip-hop DJ who is being sued for plagiarism, e) a divorced professor fighting
over the phone with his ex-wife, and e) an Iraqi American just back from a
life-altering stay in the country where he spent the first seven years of his
life. Lyras’ and director Robert McCaskill’s script is a La Ronde for one, with
the cab driver first conversing with the gallery owner, who then talks to the
attorney, etc., coming full circle as the Iraqi American ends up telling his
story to the cab driver who began “la ronde.”

These six stories take place amidst the backdrop of a rumored terrorist
conspiracy, the nature of which changes as the play moves from
character to character. Is it a hijacker? A bomb in a checkered bag?
“Some kind of whammy embedded to the bottom of a seat?”

Since we first meet Lyras as a bearded, swarthy, loquacious cabdriver, it
comes as a shock when, a brief costume change later, he reappears as a
well-dressed, sophisticated gay man, so convincing at both that it seems
almost impossible that it is the same actor, an impression which only grows
when Lyras sheds all trace of gayness transforming himself into a macho
lawyer. Especially noteworthy about Lyras’ work is that not only his
costumes, voice, and body language change as he moves from one
character to another, even his face seems to morph ever so subtly. Take a
photo of each character and you’d almost swear they were six different

The Cab Driver: Heavily accented, and fascinated by America’s obsession
with chicken. “It is morrrre chicken than you can wrrrrap yourrrr mind
arrrround,” he proclaims with effervescent joy, a proud immigrant from a
country where there are few chickens left after the bloodshed.

The Gallery Owner: Stylishly dressed, just returned from a vacation in
Mikonos, “the gay Mt. Olympus,” but unable to forget witnessing a gay
bashing seven years before. “I experienced a real attack,” he tells the
attorney, “and I reinvented my entire life.”

The Attorney: Superwired, in love with his own voice, so keyed up that he
ends up repeating words like shots from a machine gun: “No no no no go
go go go …” Who knows how many drinks (and other substances) he’s had
over the past seven hours in the airport lounge? “There’s nothing like a little
terrorism to get the cocktails flowing,” he tells PJ the DJ.

The DJ: Black sneakers, no laces, long thick chains hanging down from his
belt back up into his hip pocket, nose ring, headphones around the neck.
Can’t stand still an instant, break-dancing to his cell phone’s hip-hop
ringtone. “Yo yo yo what up?” he asks the professor’s young son Tyler in
deliberately ungrammatical English.

The Professor: A good ol’ Texas boy, with a hint of the European (maybe it’s
the beret?), on the phone with his ex-wife who accuses him of using the
terrorist threat to prolong his time with his son. He goes back and forth
between arguing with his ex, chatting with the Iraqi American, and
reprimanding his rowdy 6-year-old.

The Iraqi American: The most “average Joe” looking of the bunch in t-shirt
and stylishly frayed jeans, but the one with the most out-of-the-ordinary
story to tell. Having come to the U.S. with his father at the age of seven,
he recently returned to Iraq to find his mother, but found a life-and-death
mission there instead. “Well, it seems like you’ve got a thing for chicken,” he
tells the Iraqi cabdriver dryly as the play comes full circle.

The words “acting tour de force” are perhaps bandied about a bit too
often, but there is no better term to describe Lyras’ work in The Common
Air. You could meet any of the characters he creates, in an office or on
the street, and not doubt for an instant that you are talking with the real
deal. Voice, face, body—every element that becomes part of his
characterizations is completely authentic. Acting teachers would do well
to bring their students. They could get no better lesson.

Since the script for The Common Air is a collaboration between Lyras and
McCaskill (two years in the making), this is even more than usual a
collaboration between actor and director, and one would be hard
pressed to say where the work of one ends and the other’s work begins.

In addition, The Common Air features one of the most detailed and
evocative sound designs in recent memory, by Ken Rich, who also wrote
the background score. The jazzy, samba influenced opening music, the
sounds of traffic as the cabbie drives along downtown streets,
announcements on the airport’s PA system, the constantly intruding text
message tone of the lawyer’s cell, airport lounge background chitchat, the
DJ’s cell phone’s hip-hop ringtone, the professor’s wife’s argumentative
voice shouting out from his cell, and most memorable of all, the gradual
layering of track upon track as the DJ recalls creating the music whose
originality is now being called into question.

Lighting and costumes are uncredited but both are excellent. Robert
Easton (dialect coach) and Munda Razooki (Iraqi language coach) both
deserve mention.

The Assylum Theater, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
January 16, 2008

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