Is This Seat Taken?
Reviewed by Maura McHugh
I was amused to review 'Is This Seat Taken?', the latest audio drama at Tales from Beyond the Pale, because the term Beyond the Pale originates in Ireland. When the English occupied Ireland their stronghold was an area around Dublin referred to as The Pale. Beyond the Pale was barbarian country, where civilised people could expect no quarter from the natives. The expression entered the parlance to describe an act that should not be conscienced.
Thankfully, there is nothing reprehensible about this fine audio drama, written by award-winning horror writer Sarah Langan (Audrey's Door, The Keeper).
The story is dictated by Cassie Kooka (Vonia Lanian), who is recording her encounters with a man called Robert Benchley (Joe Swanberg), or Case Study C, as Cassie also refers to him. She stages a chance encounter with him on the train on the Long Island Rail Road in New York, and spins him a yarn about them having met in High School.
We discover that Robert was recently discharged from Bellevue, and is living in his parents' basement in Long Island. Cassie has detailed notes about Robert's mental breakdown and it's easy for her to gain his confidence. They begin to meet regularly, and eventually have sex.
What drives the story is the gradual unveiling of layers of information about Cassie and Robert. She sprinkles her observations about Robert with psychoanalytical terminology, and appears to be researching material for a book, but as we learn more about Robert questions about Cassie's motivations arise: why is she goading Robert into talking about killing people?
Robert, far from being a psychopath, turns out to be a nice guy, even if he thinks everyone has Zombie Eyes - which could be construed as a normal sign for anyone living in the 21st century.
As the relationship between Cassie and Robert intensifies, and genuine feelings between them blossom despite the deceptions, the scene is set for a bloody therapy session that deals with the genesis of Robert and Cassie's issues.
Memorable audio drama is built upon two pillars: excellent scriptwriting and first-rate voice talent. 'Is This Seat Taken?' succeeds on both counts, as well as featuring skilful production and a particularly well-judged sound design (kudos to Neil Fazzari).
Langan's characters are charming, funny and vulnerable as well as damaged, and the dialogue between Cassie and Robert is natural, punchy and always entertaining. Langan manages to get in a number of astute observations along with character development, such as when Cassie ponders Robert's situation:
American male malaise, they are suburbia's willing victims. They can't get out from their daddies' shadows so they never grow up and they never leave home. Forty years pass and they give up their dreams for a bottle of Rogaine, and wind up trying to impregnate the neighbour's dog or unloading a semi-automatic at Thanksgiving dinner. All I'm doing is speeding it along. Containing it, so innocent bystanders don't get hurt. For the purposes of research, of course.
Robert at first appears to be an easy mark, but as the narrative unfolds his character proves to be the most surprising in the story. The oddball romance between these two survivors of the insanity of the modern world is darkly touching, but with a menacing denouement. Social misfit Mad Libs, as Cassie puts it.
'Is This Seat Taken?' proves that Langan has a detailed eye for character and the ideal instinct for audio narrative. She has already proved her ability with prose, and if she puts her mind to it I assume she could perform as strongly in other media, including film and comic books, and I hope she is provided opportunities to do so.
New York actress Lanian delivers her lines with the panache and gusto of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, and Indie filmmaker Swanberg offers a subtle, nuanced performance which underscores the reveals in the last section.
Tales from Beyond the Pale is using the perfect bridging mechanism for its series of macabre stories in the form of a horror host narrator, who introduces the story and sets the scene. This is being performed ably by Larry Fessenden, one of the series' producers, an actor and award-winning writer/director of horror movies such as Wendigo and The Last Winter.
The story is a snip at $1.99, much cheaper than a cup of coffee, and you'll be able to savour its joys repeatedly.
'Is This Seat Taken?' has set a high standard for the rest of the series, and I look forward to listening to more ghastly Tales from Beyond the Pale in the near future.
'Is This Seat Taken?'
Written by Sarah Langan
Directed by JT Petty
Voice of Robert Benchley: Joe Swanberg
Voice of Cassie Kooka: Vonia Lanian
Also featuring the voice talent of Helen McTernan and Mike Malfi Mafitano
Produced by Larry Fessenden, Glenn McQuaid and Lisa Wisley.
Running time: 31 minutes
Maura McHugh is a writer living beyond the pale in the West of Ireland.
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