Monday, March 28, 2016

"Please Continue" - Where gray is the most prevalent color of all

By Judd Hollander

To get along, you have to go along. A frequent explanation when facing with an uncomfortable situation. But how long will a person continue to do something they feel is morally wrong, even when continually being urged to do just that? The answer offers a rather uncomfortable look at the makeup of human psychology as it relates to the power of authority and influence of a group mentality, as seen in Frank's Basloe's powerful drama Please Continue, now at the Ensemble Studio Theatre.

Yale University in the fall of 1960. As the United States' attention is on the upcoming presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, Assistant Professor Stanley Milgram (Haskell King) begins a pilot program on human behavior. This program would eventually lead to Milgram's groundbreaking and still controversial experiments on the subject.

What Milgram did was take two supposed volunteers, the first answering questions while sitting in a chair and strapped to electrodes, and the second administering electric shocks if the questions were answered incorrectly. The voltage of said shocks increasing with each wrong answer.

However, what the person administering the shocks didn't know, was that the person he was supposedly shocking wasn't being shocked at all. The entire purpose of the experiment being to measure the reactions of the one who thought he giving the shocks. "Please continue" being a reference to a verbal instruction volunteers would receive when and if they voiced misgivings about continuing with their part in the experiment.

Using this idea as a starting point, Basloe examines not so much the actions of the people who believe they're administering the shocks, but rather the reactions of those who know full well what's going on. Specifically, James Sanders (David Edward Jackson), a somewhat subdued fellow supervising the program who's so he can write it up for his senior thesis; and Saul Dashoff (Jonathan Randell Silver), a more happy-go-lucky sort, who is initially just interested in the money he will earn as the so-called volunteer. In the end, both find their value systems challenged and their friendship tested as they become more and more uncomfortable with their respective roles in the process. Especially since their full knowledge of what's going on allows them to see the all-too-real psychological damage it has the potential to inflict.

As this storyline is being played out, another begins to unfold elsewhere on campus. This one involving Francis Dunleavy (Jared McGuire). A Yale senior who, the year before, was involved in a school scandal which resulted in 20 students being suspended. This scenario also based on an actual incident. Wracked by shame and guilt, Dunleavy finds himself seeking to understand how and why he could do such a thing, and more importantly, why he did nothing to stop it. Even through he knew full well it was wrong.

Continually switching back and forth between these two stories, Please Continue offers an absorbing and cautionary journey into the human psyche. The play clearly showing how making the correct moral choice isn't always as black white as one would have it seem. Especially when taking into account the almost innate deference people have to figures of authority. Be they doctors in lab coats, military commanders holding sway over front-line soldiers, or teachers and professors lecturing students. 

It's also important to note that while authority can be very oppressive, it can also be very freeing for the ones receiving instructions. It provides those carrying out the task in question the excuse they were only following directions given by someone of higher status. Thus deferring their own judgment to someone else who would then, by this reasoning, ultimately take responsibility for those decisions. This is also why Sanders' eventual questioning of the Milgram program is particularly ironic. For when he voices his misgivings, he finds himself unwittingly trapped in the same authoritative web he helped spin for others. 

Also examined in Please Continue is the not-so-subtle pressure of group mentality. Where its far easier to tell everyone what they want to hear, rather than going against the grain and finding yourself subject to a collective condemnation. Be the subject in question as simple as the color of a necktie, or something far more upsetting.

Another topic that comes up for much conversation is the Kennedy/Nixon presidential election. Interesting both as a event occurring during the time play takes place, but also because it's another example of the power of perception, particularly in their televised debates. Perception being another factor in both storylines of the play.

The performances are very good, through the campus scandal story offers more opportunities for three-dimensional acting. McGuire is particularly strong as the student trying to come to terms with his role in what happened. Tommy Schrider does well as William Sloane Coffin, Jr., the Yale University Chaplain; offering both comfort and advice he tries to make Dunleavy admit his true purpose for coming to see Coffin in the first place. Molly Carden strikes a nicely human note as Dunleavy's fiancée, trying to reconcile the feelings she has for Francis with his role in what happened. Dylan Dawson works well as one of the students who was suspended because of his involvement in the scandal and who just wants to put the incident behind him. Though he does look a bit old for the role.

Elsewhere, Jackson nicely shows the conflicting priorities Saunders finds himself facing. Caught between seeing the experiment to its conclusion while wresting with his own crises of conscience over his role in the process. Silver is okay as Dashoff, though at times he comes off as more annoying than anything else. King is fine in the relatively small role of Milgram, giving him just enough shading to make him more than a simple stock character. 
Director William Carden shows a nice feel for the material, letting both storylines unfold naturally, without causing any scenes to feel rushed or forced. Also deserving of mention is the work by scenic designer Jason Simms. He presenting the staid atmosphere of a university on the one hand, and the antiseptic and impersonal feel of a laboratory-like setting on the other.

One of the most fascinating points in the show occurs when Sanders encounters a former volunteer (Alex Herrald) in a social setting. The volunteer's reaction being one of anger and frustration for what he believed Sanders forced him to do. It's a reaction that doesn't change, even when certain facts about the experiment are brought to light. This encounter showing once again that it's easier to believe someone else was entirely responsible for something upsetting you were involved in; rather than acknowledging that you yourself actually had a conscious part in it.

As noted at one point, it only takes one person to stand up and say "no" to change the course of events. But being able to find the courage to do so in a situation spiraling out of control or rapidly moving out of one's comfort zone is something else entirely. Thoughtful and all-too realistic, Please Continue offers a fascinating insight into the very complex subject of human behavior.

Featuring: Molly Carden (Margaret Hopson), Dylan Dawson (Mitchell Halverson), Alex Herrald (Harold Burden), David Edward Jackson (James Sanders), Haskell King (Stanley Milgram), Jared McGuire (Francis Dunleavy), Tommy Schrider (William Sloane Coffin, Jr.), Jonathan Randell Silver (Saul Dashoff).

Please Continue
Written by: Frank Basloe
Scenic Designer: Jason Simms
Costume Designer: Suzanne Chesney
Lighting Designer: Eric Southern
Sound Designer: Shane Retting
Props Master: Justin Cox
Production Manager: Joe Lankheet
Production Stage Manager: Carly Levin
Assistant Stage Manager: Samantha Honeycutt
Assistant Director: Harrison Densmore
Technical Director: Sara Morgan
Press: Matt Ross PR
Casting: McCorkle Casting & Tom Rowan
Directed by William Carden

Ensemble Studio Theatre
549 West 52nd Street
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission

Closed: February 28, 2016

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