Saturday, June 30, 2007

PLAY: "Politics of Passion: Plays of Anthony Minghella"

Photo/Stan Barouh

Politics of Passion: Plays of Anthony Minghella, running in repertoire with Potomac Theatre Project's other show, No End of Blame, is an uneven, overdirected hodgepodge of verbal sparring. The first two segments, the self-contained, but uneventful "Hang Up," (which places subtext in the foreground) and the too-brief-to-bother-mentioning excerpt from "Truly, Madly, Deeply," (which replaces small talk with immediate intimacy) are mini-showcases for actors, but they seem more suited for theater classes than audiences. The third piece, a novella of a play called "Cigarettes and Chocolate," has a rough and disjointed start that makes it seem like director Cheryl Faraone has a thing for Jim Jarmusch, and by the time it picks up (on the strength of actors like James Matthew Ryan and Tara Giordano), it's almost over.

The largest issue with this production is that Minghella isn't very passionate. He lacks the subtle knifing craft of Harold Pinter and doesn't have the visceral sharpness of Patrick Marber, and his keen eye for structure (as evinced in a few of the longer monologues) makes him better suited for the dispassive grace of cinema (where he started) than the yawning space of the theater. Even the best moments of "Cigarettes and Chocolate" seem like faint shadows beside the burning lights of other realists: for example, Wally Shawn's The Fever. It's a shame because the concept is rather strong: Gemma (an astonishingly expressive Cassidy Freeman) ceases to talk one day, leaving her brash but insecure husband, Rob (Ryan) to wonder if it's because of his affair with Lorna (Giordano). The truth is that it's more of a hunger strike than anything, a protest by this well-off woman of the conditions of the world around her. It's hard to tell though, given how closely Minghella plays his cards to his chest.

Dulling intellectualism can be overcome by theatrical staging or embraced by minimalism: unfortunately, Faraone takes a little too much of each. Her use of pastel lighting and frozen time makes the show seem overly pretentious, and her use of selections from Bach's "St. Matthew's Passion" gropes too hard for a connection where there is none. Within the scenes, the music is already being critiqued; used outside them, it casts a monotony over the already dry play.

This isn't to say that the whole production is bad, but it seems like Minghella's advice about infidelity is true: an affair is nothing if nobody talks about it. Well, nobody really talks in Politics of Passion; consequently, the show isn't about much either.

Friday, June 29, 2007

PLAY: "No End Of Blame"

Photo/Stan Barouh

"Cartoon is the lowest form of art," says Bela Veracek, a political cartoonist loosely modeled on Victor Weisz (or perhaps Philip Zee). "And the most important one." It's the latter half of this insightful statement that director Richard Romagnoli has gone with, for there's nothing low about Potomac Theatre Project's revival of Howard Barker's excellent epic No End Of Blame. Bolstered by the menacing ink of Bela's work (actually that of Gerald Scarfe), projected against an otherwise blank canvas, every ounce of this production is as carefully considered as Barker's meticulous word choice (most obvious in a scene with a cultural "critic" in Russia).

The play opens with Veracek as the most unlikely of heroes: conscripted in the Hungarian army during World War I, his logical mind tries to explain how rape might be "considerate" in certain circumstances. Though Bela's strong opinions become more acceptable (and accessible, as the play stretches through World War II into the '70s), the world around him continues to judge him as a rebel. What's fascinating about Barker's sharply satirical prose and Romagnoli's direction is how this strong personality is used to make the rest of the world a constant reflection of its own nonsense: well-mannered Russian communists try to make Bela conform in the same Inquisition-like fashion as angry loyalists to the British Royal Air Force, the pompous politicians of Churchill's party, and even the neutral professors of a Budapest art school. No End Of Blame succeeds in making Bela the hero by pitting the world against his cartoons; even as his strongest supporters fade, like Bob Stringer, his editor at the Daily Mirror, and his one friend, Grigor Gabor runs off with his wife, Ilona, Bela's art -- thick lines blown up in the background -- stands for something truer than what it represents.

No End Of Blame also features a topnotch ensemble, a cast of thirteen who are capable of showing the broad changes from era to era in Bela's journey from idealism to suicide. Alex Draper is a standout as Bela, a man so wrapped up in himself that his treats his wife's affair with patient stoicism and his own critics with nonchalant dismissals, but he's well-assisted by Christopher Duva, who plays both his innocent friend, Grigor, and, later, the unctuous censor Frank Deeds, and people like Alex Cranmer and Peter B. Schmitz, who give substance to even tangential roles, like the two PCs who fish Bela out of the river after he jumps. In their hands, Barker's debate-heavy script becomes engaging, escaping the leadenness of other intellectual plays. They also manage to find the darkness behind the politeness and match drama to the exposition, without ever seeming to emote.

The emotion of No End Of Blame is all in the passion and the struggle for culture, but even those looking for standard physical drama will get caught up in the nuanced presentation by the Potomac Theatre Project. "Give us a pencil," cries Bela, as he passes the struggle on to another generation, but he should demand more. This play is worth so much more than a pencil.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

CD: The Feeling, "Twelve Stop and Home"

Twelve Stop and Home isn't just the name of The Feeling's debut album or a reference to the Piccadilly line that they sing about in classic Beatles style on "Blue Piccadilly." It's also a way of noting the progression of the album's tracks--twelve in all. The construction, like that of the train, is the same throughout: technically precise and rarely daring mechanics, upbeat melodies and lyrics, and '80s rhythm. But each stop, so to speak, takes the listener to a different location, and every track has its own unique outer twist, like the stuttering calls of "Never Be Lonely," the Queen-like anthems of "I Want You Now," the double-time grind on "Anyone," and the surprising instrumental solos on "Same Old Stuff" and "Helicopter" (metal!). Dan Gillespie Sells's voice is easy to dig, and his words are summer-easy, but the linchpin of the group is Ciaran Jeremiah, who pulls some experimental britpop out of his keyboards with the erratic "Fill My Little World With Love."

Saturday, June 23, 2007

CD: Pagoda, "Pagoda"

A pagoda is an exotic, religious, many-tiered tower, and taken in that context, Pagoda's self-titled debut is appropriate. Built from folk, feathering into grunge, grinding into a classical stupor, Michael Pitt's band is a wild experience. There's throat-choking punk in "Lesson Learned" just as much as there's the balladeer's dirge on "Fetus." Songs like "Amego," which mixes political clips about immigration with the blah-blah text of another MTV generation, bounce against their tonal opposites: tracks like "Death to Birth," or "Sadartha," which succeed at transmuting polemics into discordantly angry swells. Even songs like "Alone," a forced admixture of dismal screeching and mournful whispers with a weepy violin, are salvaged by the music. Unfortunately, they've filled out their CD with a lengthy b-side clip of their experimenting, "I Do," which is almost pretentious enough to make me, despite generally like this album, say I Don't.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

PLAY: "Saint Joan of the Stockyards"

Photo/Rachel Roberts

Bertolt Brecht was an intentionally alienating author who saw theater as a means to educate the masses. That makes Lear deBessonet one of those inspirational teachers who lights up a classroom with out-of-the-box activities. It doesn't seem challenging at all: her text, Ralph Manheim's revised translation of Saint Joan of the Stockyard, has dialogue that pops and sizzles, especially on the bloody floor of the meat-market exchange (a primal stock exchange). Her cast, eight talented performers (albeit a few with weak "substitute teacher"-like moments), jump from playing the oppressed to being the oppressors with an eager grace. And her set, sandwiched by the audience, is a juddering industrial strip of thick barrels, swinging beams, suspended chalkboards, and slippery wires. (After seeing this, there's no doubt that Greg Kotis pulled some of Urinetown from Saint Joan, but looking at the design, it seems like Justin Townsend stole the gritty style right back.) It's still a communistic manifesto, but one that's punctuated with snipes at organized religion and mechanized humanity.

The story recasts Jeanne d'Arc, the martyred girl who followed her visions and led a revolution, as Joan Dark, a member of the Black Straw Hats, a religious relief group. While sharing what is more rainwater than soup with the poor stockyard workers, Slift (an oily Mike Crane), demonstrates the base nature of the workers: women like Mrs. Luckerniddle (Kate Benson) sell their outrage for food, while others deceive strangers into doing dangerous work for their own benefit. But Joan, so wonderfully innocent (as played by the excellent Kristen Sieh), argues that baseness has not been shown, only poverty: in this case, "righteous indignation is too expensive." Meanwhile, her rival, the meat-king Mauler, tries to reform his ways, deeply affected by Joan and the no-longer-invisible poor; Richard Toth, who plays this role, manages the sincerity required to validate Brecht's underlying sarcasm, and the righteousness necessary to balance Joan's crusade. We almost agree with him when he says that "money is a way of making things better, if only for the few." Finally, there's the sycophantic Snyder (a melodic Peter McCain), a minister who is quick to eschew the poor when faced with an eviction notice: "If the Lord can't pay his rent, he'll have to move out."

In line with Brecht's style, a variety of effects are used by deBessonet to keep the audience at a distance: Mauler often speaks from a high platform or from within a glass house, and Joan is often seized with an evangelical passion that makes her vibrate across the stage (in the depressing second act, she mourns interpretively in place). There's also a slew of country songs by Kelley McRae that stir up with the masses, clash against the rich, and ultimately ebb into the background with a tender, somber hush. However, deBessonet's high theatrical style actually makes the story more accessible, especially the intimate choice to keep Joan on stage and in character through the intermission, shivering in a tiny sliver of light. Even the dimly lit second act, which makes the wide set into one long cinematic shadow, actually keeps us in touch with our needlessly suffering heroine. The avante-garde isn't eccentric enough anymore, except for perhaps in the harshly satirical conclusion, which crucifies, saints, and distorts Joan all in the same heavily choreographed number.

Saint Joan of the Stockyards, which marks the premiere of the Culture Project's three-week Women Center Stage festival, is a fusion of culture, politics, high theater, and hip style. The tennis-court staging, cool as it is, does unfortunately obstruct some of the views, and the start of the show is largely underwhelming, as if it's too caught up in the possibilities of the stage as a playground, or confused about what to do with a live musician on the stage. But deBessonet, as she usually does, finds her balance quickly, and delivers a strong adaptation of the dense Brecht, as much a spoon-fed sonata as a dust-dwelling dirge.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

PLAY: "Off Stage: The East Village Fragments"

Ryan Redebaugh, Christopher Beier & Frank Blocker in a scene from Ruth Landshoff Yorck's "Lullaby for a Dying Man."
Photo/Jim Baldassare

With this celebratory collage, a patchwork of 80 actors, 22 directors, and a dozen theatrical landmarks that is anything but threadbare, the Peculiar Works Project makes the chronicling of off-off-Broadway into an exciting evening walking tour. Site-specific performances throw hay, rugs, beds, chairs, and whatever else they can find at the audience to wake up the culture of the booming '60s and the rise of La MaMa (among others). Experimental, wild, creative pieces abound, and the atmosphere of the sultry city only adds to the mix as you realize that anybody walking down the street could be the next show.

While the project is meant to enrich the public (which it does), it also serves a second purpose for those producers bold enough to venture below Fourteenth. There's some popular pieces, like an excerpt from the musical "Hair," Jean Genet's oft-appearing "The Maids," and offerings from staples like Sam Shepard (the sexed up "The Rock Garden") and Israel Horovitz (the aggressive "The Indian Wants the Bronx"). But there are also tons of rediscovered works, like Michael McGrinder's "The Foreigners" (the disconnect of language), Leonard Melfi's sweet "Birdbath," Jean-Claude Van Itallie's brilliant satire, "America Hurrah!" (as accurate about politicians now as it was in '65), or Robert Patrick's five-minute masterpiece, "Camera Obscura." It's a veritable pupu platter of delectable and theatrical morsels. And even if a few give cause for indigestion, you'll quickly be walking it off en route to the next "stage."

In addition to the historical annotations crammed into the program, East Village Fragments also provides audiences with immediate visualizations for different styles of theater, not to mention the ways in which directors can give life to a text, as with Casey McLain's row of flashlight illuminated women in "The Mulberry Bush," Belinda Mello's intimate proximity of the cast in "A Corner of a Morning," or the way Halina Ujda turns a narrow street into the final walk on death row in "Lullaby for a Dying Man." The creativity occasionally bleeds into confusion, as with the absurd "The Conquest of the Universe (or When Queens Collide)," which, in order to pay respect to the two visions that split the play into two theaters, has two casts and directors working at the same time. It's a valuable lesson in what the Playhouse of the Ridiculous was all about, and a nice compliment to the Theater of the Absurd parody (which is, by nature, just as absurd), "The Bundle Man."

Not that anyone's judging, especially this critic. The East Village Fragments is meant to be experienced as a whole, and given that, the only thing this two-and-a-half hour, literal tour-de-force is missing is a bathroom break. Aside from that, I think you'll find that even the theatrical equivalent of the kitchen sink is represented here, from interstitial mini-happenings to musical segues to gibberish poetic rants, and, of course, the city itself. Whether you'll like it is almost beside the point; suffice to say the meal's been well-prepared. You have to taste it for yourself.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

PLAY: "The Devil on All Sides"

Photo/Rachel Roberts

Here's an interesting show for you: a play about war by way of Yugoslavia (1993) by way of a French author (Fabrice Melquiot) by way of a San Fransisco physical theater troupe (foolsFURY) now touring at PS122. To say that something's been lost in translation would be an understatement, but what's left is a functionally surreal drama about war, which, as Ben Yalom directs it, has a language all of its own.

The Devil on All Sides has an eerie suspense to it, but the dialogue seems to be about as successful as a shelling exercise: some of the lines are right on target; some resound, but only from the shrapnel of afterthought; others fall flat; and some seem to have been written simply to help the playwright find the mark he wants to hit. The scenes bleed rapidly into one another, but there's never an adjustment in tone. Our elegiac hero, Lorko, flees from conscription, hitching rides first with an Italian, then with a Frenchman; at the same time, his brother Jovan and his best friend Alexander keep returning from evening skirmishes to commiserate with Sladjana and Vid (Lorko's parents) over a bowl of bouillon. As the characters evolve, Lorko starts to hallucinate them, especially his Muslim wife, Elma, but because these scenes are all so similar, they often take up the redundancy of war.

That's where the direction comes in: The Devil on All Sides works hard to build beauty from routine, which is a fitting style for a war play. A series of Tetris-shaped rubble is manipulated into various objects, a large tapestry serves either to project ominous shadows or to reveal more intimate spaces, and popular music (like "Bridge Over Troubled Waters") helps to close the distance between Them and Us. The best scenes do even more to break these barriers: early on, Alexander and Jovan flee the enemy, but they do so while sitting, doing a jerky series of movement that almost looks like they're playing a video game. When the lights come on and we see that Alexander's eyes have been gouged out, it's shocking. This is then turned to farce (he continues to fight and continues to be mutilated) and then to reality, when the bombs start dropping on Jovan's house and the childishness turns to an uglier coming of age. Of course, we also get flowers bursting out of people's mouths and some inexplicable blocking choices involving crawlspaces and reverse trust-falls, so it's not all brilliant work.

Between the strained language and occasionally excessive staging, The Devil on All Sides is bogged down in theatricality. However, it's extremely successful in its casting, as the actors understand the need for silence and balance, and don't try to emote their way through poetry. I just wish it didn't seem like such a fight just to put up a show about the state of fighting.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

PLAY: "The Second Tosca"

Photo/Neilson Barnard

"What's the point of having an obsession unless it damages you?" With such an insightful comment not just about art, but love, playwright Tom Rowan could have made his new play The Second Tosca into a drama or a comedy. Thankfully, he chose the latter. The story is filled with hopes, aspirations, and charismatic yet technical banter about opera, but the pace remains light on its feet. In opera lingo, the show is presented with spinto tonality: that is, it rests somewhere between the dramatic soprano and the lyric, soubrette, soprano, and it has mastered the portamento, a technique of gliding smoothly from pitch to pitch.

Much like classical comedies, Rowan introduces, in quick succession, a series of familiarly quirky stock characters. From the hyperactive, wannabe diva, Darcy Green (Melissa Picarello) to her full-blown prima donna of a mentor, the sassy Gloria Franklin (Vivian Reed), to the innocent, goddess of a singer, Lisa Duvall (Rachel de Benedet), this show throws every sort of personality it can find into the mix, including an Italian ghost from the '50s (Eve Gigliotti). As for love interests, you've got Lisa's fiancee, an uptight maestro named Aaron Steiner (Mark Light-Orr), the nebbish, wunderkind composer Nathaniel (Jeremy Beck), and the strapping ASM, Ben (Tug Coker, who could double for Desperate Housewives' Mike). And while Lisa's trying to find her inner Tosca by flustering these men, her brother Stephen (Carrington Vilmont, a far less creepy version of Six Feet Under's David) is there to lend the wry, sage advice of an old gay soul. Or just to hit on all the guys.

The idea of using one art form to parallel that most ancient of art forms, love, is hardly anything new, but Rowan has found a way to put his passion for opera into a sublimely comic form, and the story feels fresh. I didn't even mind the occasionally superfluous and moralizing scenes, although credit for that is due to the fantastic cast, the likes of which I could watch for hours more. This is true especially of Ms. de Benedet, a true gem of the stage. With her sparkling, Chenoweth-like personality and effortlessly charming grace, it's no wonder all the men--and women--are crazy for her. Between her and the play, this is the most down-to-earth play to ever involve something as surreal as opera. Lisa may have discovered that every actor must learn to find their own Tosca, and to live their own life (not that of their brothers or fiancees), but it's hard to imagine any other actor getting a better grip on this role than Rachel.

As for direction, I couldn't ask for more than what Kevin Newbury has done to the modest 45th Street Theatre. Charlie Corcoran's wall-less backstage lets us see what's going on in both the green room and the dressing room, but Newbury's the one who fills that space with energy. He's also taken the script to heart, especially the comment that "Perfect isn't the same as good." The pacing is tight, but not artificial; the ghost is haunting, but not distracting; the characters are over-the-top, but always human. Unlike the ghost, the life hasn't been staged out of this wonderfully funny show.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

PLAY: "Passing Strange"

Photo/Michal Daniel

The first third of Passing Strange, due to technical problems with the microphone levels or physical problems with the three-pronged staging, passes by more than strangely; it's downright bad. If there is a difference between "the sacred and the profane," Stew doesn't connect to it until deep in the second act, and the only reason I stayed through intermission was because some of the lyrics were cute ("We just had sex/there's nothing nasty about a reflex") and because Annie Dorsen's direction, as subtle and submerged at times as the band, showed a lot of promise. On all other accounts, this coming-of-age story could just have well pulled its title from the next line of Othello's monologue and gone with "Wondrous Pitiful."

But don't let the dancing lights and neon choreography of the background's light wall fool you, and don't be thrown by the way Stew alternates between spoken word and verse, or the way he uses scenes as the bridges for his songs. By the time our hero alights in Amsterdam, he truly has left behind the puerile and pot-headed choir and his erstwhile garage band, and when Stew starts with the gospel-rock repetition of "It's Alright," we're as convinced as he is. The music has managed, as promised in the opening, to go right over my head and to my soul.

There's one more twist when our protagonist, Youth, heads to Berlin. Stew's still there with the meta- jokes: "There was supposed to be a showtune here, but then I remembered, we don't write those," he apologizes, and then goes on to satirize art-house noir. And his triple-cast actors (De'Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge, and Rebecca Naomi Jones) are really flexing their ranges here, particularly Domingo, as a Riff-Raff-like Mr. Venus ("What's inside is just a lie"). But it's here that the Youth's quest to realize the Real (which is really Stew's quest, and any true artist's quest) is fulfilled, in a heartbreaking parallel between Daniel Breaker (Youth) and Stew. His breaking of the forth-wall isn't just an epiphany, but it's a genuine connection with the audience, and a dropping of the "theatrical haze" (that's a double entendre) that threatens the overall show with general malaise.

"When paradise takes no effort/when the Real becomes routine," is an early warning sung to our hero, and it's a message that Stew should simply taken even further to heart. His final act is a tremendous accomplishment, and if he can find a way to maintain the narrative journey while keeping us as rapt as with the end, Passing Strange will be staying strange. For instance, Breaker shines at the end, but as with his supporting role in Well, he's forced to hold back his talent to that point: unfair, both to the audience and to the actor.

Structural nitpicks aside, Passing Strange is an invigorating coming-of-age story and a visceral imperative to all the artists out there who are afraid or restrained by their dreams. Funny, quirky, and, sure, strange, there's a big and meaty musical adventure hidden behind the cute comedy, and you'd be wrong to pass this show up.


Questions for the art community in regards to gender/color blindness, as well as thoughts on closure in the theater, and the creeping presence of snark (it's not just for reviews anymore). Due to my irregular posting over there, I'll continue to post little updates here, every now and then, when I've got something fresh up at the site. [Read on]

Coming soon: A response to The Capriciousness of Critics [April 2007, American Theatre]

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

PLAY: "You Can't Take It With You"

Photo/Rod Goodman

Everybody in the popular Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman comic staple, You Can't Take It With You, has big dreams, bigger hearts, and even bigger personalities. T. Schreiber Studio, has brought this classic period piece back, but it seems as half-hearted a hobby as that of the entire Sycamore clan. Director Peter Jensen means well: his second act even manages to spark some life into the show. But the rest of the piece only succeeds in putting a lot of balls in the air at once: so many, in fact, that it becomes hard to care about any of them.

Jacqueline van Biene, who plays the romantic (and embarrassed) Alice, is an exception to the rule, and those in her direct sphere of influence, like Peter Judd (as a savvy and wry "Grandpa") and Josh Sienkiewicz (as Alice's love interest, the well-mannered Tony Kirby) come across looking much better for her company. Some of the cast, like the vocally overactive Margot Bercy (as Penny) to the physically overactive Jamie Neumann (as Essie) are talented actors, but misdirected into a constant state of excitement, while others, like Jerry Rago (Paul) waddle through their scenes without any emotion, as if trying to balance out the crazy. And then there are actors like Laurence Cantor who get lost in the crazed Russian stereotype (as Boris Kolenkhov) or find themselves channeling comedians like George Carlin, as with John Mulcahy (as Mr. De Pinna). Such classical humor requires meticulous rhythm, not just soul, and the result is the worst of freestyle jazz: lively but bland.

The play has aged pretty well, for a '30s hit, although some of the jokes that were funny then are funny now in a more sardonic way. The lack of control and cohesion for the comedy, however, are what give this away as a knock-off. Jill Bianchini plays Olga like a female Borat, and Jim Cyborowski plays Mr. Kirby as a stricter version of Boy Meets World's Mr. Feeny. These caricatures, once original, are now drowned in a double-dose of culture shock: that delivered by the actors, and that of the audiences trying to process the mad-cap antics.

You Can't Take It With You is a pretty ambitious play to pull off, but that's not an excuse for its sloppiness. All that was cute and charming about the story now seems tarnished and satired, and rather than cheering for the love of dysfunction, there's now more chuckling at pathos. Happiness, once measured in humor, is now drowned in cheap jokes, and while there's parts of this show I treasure, I don't want to take it with me.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

BOOK: "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," by Michael Chabon

Unlike 2003's flimsy detective novel, The Final Solution, or the recent serialized epic adventure, Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon has at last returned to the dense and inventive storytelling that he refined so well in the historical homage of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. This time, in The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon turns to an alternate history in which Israel, losing the war of 1948, is scattered once more, settling in the temporary refuge of Alaska, the Federal District of Sitka. In addition to the creative descriptions of the settlement ("a crooked parenthesis of rocky shoreline") and the noirish presentation of the situation ("the sordid history of corruption, malfeasance, and unconstitutional skullduggery"), there's a great pulp thriller here, full of half-naked arctic escapes, deserted parking-lot shootouts, and intimidation from both the Mafia-like black-hat community and US government.

The story focuses around our anti-hero, Meyer Landsman, a self-medicating drinker who "has only two moods: working and dead." A decorated cop, yet a divorced man living in a squalid motel, he's by-the-book only if that book's an old-fashioned crime novel. He is, of course, the perfect protagonist for a writer like Chabon, who writes that "part of the policeman's job [is] to jerk back the pretty carpet that covers over the deep jagged hole in the floor." Well, Chabon's a master of beautiful prose, and his jagged, punchy dialogue is a real comedic device, so if anyone's equipped to tell this story, it's him.

When a neighbor of Meyer's turns up dead, it's a chess game that wakes up Meyer's besotted brain, and even though his ex-wife is now in charge of the department, even though his partner, a half-Indian named Berko Shemets, has three kids, and even though the Jews are about to undertake another exodus when Alaska reverts to local Tlingit control, he decides to ignore the orders for "effective resolution" (the closure of all open cases) and to go around the black flags of the department's cold cases to figure out the true story of his murdered neighbor. The various layers of the story have forebodings of the Messiah, miracles, and a plan to retake Israel, but it's not grounded in the supernatural conspiracy theories. The Yiddish Policeman's Union is very simply one unhinged detective's quest to carve out a little slice of life for himself, and though the book is filled with flashbacks to Meyer's scheming relatives (his Uncle Hertz, subverting his power as an FBI agent, so as to get Sitka residents permanent status) or chess-obsessed father, the story is a rapid adventure.

It's also a dose of culture: from Professor Zimbalists's role as the boundary maven of an artificial shtetl to the sinister Baronshteyn's role as a Verbover enforcer, right down to the descriptions of torpid rabbis ("a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running"), or the constant use of slang like noz, yid, or the inventive Shoyfer, now a substitute for cellphone. Despite this massive world-building and undefined vocabulary, the book is rather simple to suss out, a fact that due largely to the dialogue. Jocular and clever, it's filled with jokes and retorts as much as it is with interrogations, and confessions are relegated entirely to flashback chapters. For instance:

"Tuna salad," Landsman observes, thinking of how she stopped eating tuna when she found out she was pregnant with Django.
"Yeah, I try to ingest as much mercury as I can," Bina says, reading the memory on his face. She swallows the enzyme tablet. "Mercury's kind of my thing nowadays."
Landsman jerks a thumb toward Mrs. Nemintziner, standing ready with her spoon.
"You ought to order the baked thermometer."
"I would," she says, "but they only had rectal."
Not only does this section subtly refer back to the dead baby that led to the divorce, but it creates a terse mood between them even while telling a joke. The entire book maintains the same rhythm, filling chasming silences with feeble but funny jokes and packing the descriptions with action and development. The Yiddish Policemen's Union is another example of what happens when a literary writer turns his hand to genre writing, only unlike John Banville's solipsistic and anti-climactic Christine Falls, Chabon has the experience and punch to deliver a satisfying read all the way to the fateful conclusion. The alternate history is a cop-out only in comparison to Kavalier & Clay, aside from that, it's just one more clever invention from a master storyteller.

Friday, June 08, 2007

PLAY: "Wonderland: Free Fall"

When I last fell through the rabbit hole of indie theater and visited Wonderland, there were 52 one-acts competing for recognition: a chance to be in the spotlight right on 42nd Street's Theater Row. That was ten days ago. Tonight's finale, after three elimination rounds, featured the three "best" plays (selected by secret judges), and tomorrow at 11:30 PM, at Chi (48 West 21st St.), a winner will be crowned. Of the plays, two were standard fare: the outrageous Indigenous People, and the forgettable Farewell Evenbrook. Neither were bad, but they both felt comfortable and ordinary, and without risk. Of course, they would seem that way compared to the superbly written and directed Sandwich, and based on this microcosm of plays, the awards tomorrow will serve as a statement about the sort of theater we the public rewards. I'm not saying forget the TONY awards, but if you haven't ventured even an avenue off-Broadway, then you're missing the rising stars of tomorrow.

Terence Patrick Hughes' Farewell Evenbrook is a decent, but well-trodden tale that looks at two roommates on their last day of high school, checking to see if the real world will remind them of how different they are, or if it will tie them closer together. Teddy (the boring Henry Cyr) is the bookworm, the kind of kid who leaves his room late at night to study at a professor's house, whereas Oscar (an engaging Jeremy Ellison-Gladstone) is the kid who asks his roommate to leave his room late at night so that he can study a girl's "house." As a result, the expected confrontation reeks of literature and immaturity: for instance, a quip about a Kerouac book that's just been thrown out the window is "Now he's really on the road." It's also not very surprising; Hughes doesn't take any risks as a playwright or director, which is a shame, since he's got the potential to be very good as either.

Andrew Biss's Indiginous People, on the other hand, doesn't show much promise at all. It's very much a genre comedy that takes one eccentric character, Caroline (played her by the outlandish Nicole Heriot) and pairs her with a straight man, Roger (played tonight by James Stover, the director), and then places them both out of context, in this case, on a camping trip. It's a sketch that goes on for thirty minutes, and the only joke that pulls in the laughs is also one of the most forced and over-the-top moments I've seen in a theater. Caroline, believing she's been bitten by a snake in her most intimates, has Roger duck under her skirt to suck the poison out . . . you can pretty much write your own punchline to that one. Imagine what you will, it was the most grotesquely funny thing I've seen, and that's not necessarily a compliment to anyone but Heriot, who at least plays the role with full steam ahead.

From the moment Jessamyn Fiore's Sandwich starts, you know you're in for a treat -- and not just a turkey sandwich. Two perky girls, both acting like showroom models in a synchronized sandwich-making commercial, begin to take their ingredients from large brown paper bags, setting them at opposite ends of a table, all to the rising beat of a electronic song. The music swells as the two gyrate and coat their bread, it thumps as the meat and lettuce gets added to the mix. Then, for a coup de grace, one more ingredient: poison (in a big yellow sugar box with a skull on it, like the kind of sugar a pirate would use). Kimberlea Kressal's direction is just as consistently good even after the two start talking about their domestic woes, and both Karly Maurer and Dechelle Damien have superb emotional ranges, going as they do from comedy to tragedy, all in a quirky, neo-classicist dialogue that brings to mind Daniel MacIvor. When the sarcasm drops at last--"My husband fucks strippers"--the show starts to simmer, and Kressal's use of routine movements for the monologues sustains a disturbingly tense atmosphere, blending the everyday with the today. Director, actors, and playwright all come together to make a truly comic gem that distorts, exaggerates, and pivots its way to the only possible conclusion.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

PLAY: "In a Dark Dark House"

"Nothing like a couple of fag jokes to break the ice," says Drew as he keeps his distance from his estranged brother, Terry. It's a good way to introduce Neil LaBute, too: the sort of playwright who uses honesty as a weapon and politically incorrect humor as a shield. His latest play, In a Dark Dark House, isn't about "fag jokes," or even the supposed childhood molestation of Drew by Terry's father figure. It's about the ties that bind us. Underneath all of the whip-smart language and the nuances of tone, the play is absurdly physical, and its strength comes from the breeze of a putt on a mini-golf course or the swift ferocity of a bear hug. These moments shows LaBute's growth as a writer (perhaps in relation to his recent work as a film director): no longer do his delightfully wicked characters simply hurl insults at each other between bantering sessions (the splendid The Shape of Things) or inflict empty cruelties (Fat Pig). It's still LaBute, but a more ambiguous LaBute, one who has finally added insinuation to his arsenal.

LaBute's detractors question his predictable unpredictability: every play has a cruel, moral twist at the end, like M. Night Shyamalan directing the Saw franchise. Whether it's the misdirection of In a Dark Dark House or the darkness of Drew's stakes-raising confession, the surprise here is still surprising, most notably in how the actors handle it. Ron Livingston is so convincing as Drew--the smug, lawyerly asshole--that his tight-lipped explosions of anger and his throat-clenching tears allow us to see him as a victim. In fact, he makes his brother seem like the bad guy, especially with the force Frederick Weller brings to the role of Terry, a man so aggressive that even Drew's use of the word "Dude" draws one fist back. Of course, there's a twist in expectations already, for Drew's actually a manipulative liar, right down to the fake laugh, and Terry's a straight-shooting realist who doesn't buy into bullshit. Weller, despite his tendency to be typecast as the antihero (Take Me Out, Seascape), is fantastic in this role, from his narrow posture to his harsh mid-West accent.

The second scene is vintage LaBute: an unbalanced seduction scene between a minx of a sixteen-year-old, and a playful, charming Terry. LaBute's always been a little misogynistic, and he writes very little character into Jennifer: he objectifies her while at the same time making her equally culpable in the crime. It's no surprise that he nicknames her with the masculine "Buddy," although it's refreshing to see Lousia Krause retain such tenuous sexiness in the role. Buddy is a demonstration of LaBute's strength as a writer (natural, if not too true-to-life characters) and weakness (the same limited troupe of characters are in all of his plays). At least LaBute knows to cast movie stars: charisma overwhelms stereotype.

The one thing that's not helping LaBute is director Carolyn Cantor. Not that Cantor's a bad director--she brought Adam Rapp's twisted world to life in Essential Self-Defense--but she encourages LaBute's worst habits. What should be subtle moments have a spotlight thrust upon them by Cantor's staging, and the very last "dangling" image is a bit too tell-tale. She uses the multilevel grass and bright blue sky well to parallel the picturesque facade with the underlying rot, and her props--a windmill golf obstacle whose blades don't cover the hole, an oversize swing--elicit the desired comic effect. LaBute's words are always funny, even with "that dark cloud going on"; Cantor's staging is dulled by the moments of tragedy.

In a Dark Dark House happens to be another success for Neil LaBute: the topics are fresh, the characters are lively, and the twist still works. Molestation isn't as understandable as adultery (The Mercy Seat) or image (Fat Pig) but Frederick Weller's rough-edged Terry is a polarizing first for LaBute: an antihero, sure, but a deep one.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

PLAY: "Horizon"

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Playwrights who come right out and proclaim their play to be allegory are setting the bar rather high. Rinde Eckert's Horizon often hits the mark with panoramic observations on religion (based loosely on the philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr). At the same time, the vista of parables is so large that the endless devices are as confusing to the ear as they are pleasing to the eye. David Schweizer's direction comes as a sort of deliverance from the decadent cadences of Eckert's performance and interwoven texts; the end result is well-spoken but emotionally tame.

On the surface, we have Reinhart Poole (Eckert), an ethics professor teaching his final class at seminary: he has just been fired for his provocative lessons, the likes of which encourage doubt: "Doubt is how we maintain our faith," he intones, his voice a melodic brimstone, his face flickering with the sinister joviality of Forest Whitaker. "Belief without doubt undermines faith." Beneath that is the metadramatic novelty of two Irish masons, Jim and Harrison (Samuel and Beckett sound better), who serve as eternal builders (allegories) in the play Poole is writing. Deeper still, theatrical demonstrations of Poole's lectures on topics ranging from Plato's ever-popular cave (the set itself is within an aluminum-like cave) to a windowless house and the truth-telling devil. These miniature playlets, largely performed by the grandiose Howard Swain and the perfectly restrained David Barlow, end up being the meat of the play, both for Schweizer's image-heavy work and Eckert's point-hammering prose.

The danger that Poole describes when first defining allegory is unfortunately realized: the allegory becomes the story, and Poole's struggles with his runaway brother, spectral parents, and distant wife (Swain and Barlow, whispering into downstage microphones) are subsumed by the animated combinations of gospel and comic a capella or the vaudeville choreography of a old-fashioned showtune. At one point, Poole writes himself into the allegory, only to die and resurrect like a phoenix from a shroud. Luckily, Schweizer's modish, modern direction is well-poised for metaphor: cinder blocks, wood, and plastic are all transmuted by clever lighting.

According to the devil of one parable, "The nature of truth is to be despised but indispensable." With entertaining performances and beautiful scenework, Horizon is far from being despised. But it's also far from a "dangerous pulpit"; the story is so controlled (right down to the Gothic techno music) that we may admire more than think. Comfort is derived not from the absence of horses from a picture (given faith that they are just beyond the frame), but in the painting of a beautifully empty field itself. The view's terrific, but it's lonely way out here in allegory.

Monday, June 04, 2007

PLAY: Don Juan in Chicago

<--- Photo/Monica Freisem

David Ives meant Don Juan in Chicago as one of his patented verbal comedies, but by reversing the expected, he has created an even better love-struck origin story than the historic fables of the womanizing Don Juan. Simply making a bet just doesn't raise the stakes enough: no, here our Don Juan makes a deal with the devil: not for sex (he's too busy with reading to lose his virginity) but to live forever. It's the small print that turns our naive nerd into a seducer: if he doesn't "romance" a different woman every night, he'll forfeit his soul (and that of his servant, Leporello, who is unwillingly along for the ride). Worse than sex turning into a chore (think Wilt Chamberlain, multiplied by eight) is Mephistopheles's extra twist: the first woman he sleeps with, Doña Elvira, is the woman of his dreams, whom he is doomed never to sleep with again, lest he lose his immortality. And if that weren't bad enough, she becomes immortal too, a constant reminder of his inconstancy. Oh, and even worse (for them, not us): every time the devil comes around or the seduction gets heavy, they start speaking in verse.

Cut to 146,000 women later, Chicago, where Don Juan now goes by Don Johnson, and Leporello goes by Lefty, and the swank castle has eroded to a dank bachelor pad in the slums. His latest "conquest," Sandy, was one of his victims 23 years ago; Doña Elvira, disguised as a southerner, is still trying to sleep with "The Don," and his only recourse may be to steal the sweet, naive Zoey away from his neighbor, Mike. To quote the show, "It's either cum, or kingdom come."

Owen M. Smith's direction nails the enunciation on both, with a nice paralleling scene change between Spain and Illinois, and his cast manages to balance the sex with doom without going overboard with either. The actors are also great with Ives's wit, rhyming iniquitous with ubiquitous or cupidity with stupidity without batting an eyelash. Of particular note is Doug Nyman, who wins our hearts with his plaintive asides and grabs our attention with his energetic explicatives.

In the first act, the action runs a little slow, though it's spiced up by our asthmatic Queen of a devil, played to a delightful T by Stephen Balantzian. However, once the jokes have all been established and the stage set, Ives runs into a full-blown farce, with windows, doors, and beds all popping open, and character twists flying in and out through any and all openings. The energy builds into a nice comic crescendo, and the wordplay, steady throughout, keeps us engaged in the somewhat predictable story. From alliteration ("the pinnacle of pulchritude") to syllogism ("I have no reason to live, but that's no reason not to live"), Don Juan in Chicago is just a well-mannered delight.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

PLAY: "Penetrator"

One of the only good things about the Iraq War is that it is similar enough to the Gulf War (Bush War One) to give many playwrights the opportunity to update their material and give it a second go. Case in point with Anthony Nielson's Penetrator, in which a disturbed, AWOL soldier seeks solace in his memories of a happier past, only to find that his best friend, Max, has moved on from their patented duo of "you're the brains and I'm the brawn." The Max (Michael Mason) who opens the show is a self-obsessed asshole, playing Halo 2 with his eyes glued to a TV resting atop a black egg-crate, the sound blaring, the lights from the game exploding in static waves against his glazed skin. As he drinks beer, he switches from the game to a porno, only to get interrupted, mid-jerk, by his roommate, Alan (Jared Culverhouse).

Nielson's play does a terrific job of building the camaraderie between these two; they all but complete each other's lines. Alan is the shyer of the two, overweight and mustached, but together, the two quote old TV shows and re-enact the music video of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. This, however, isn't the play that Nielson wants to give us, which is why there is the constant foreshadowing of a man hitchhiking in the rain as an ominously low voice-over rants sexual abuses, and why the program warns us of mature and violent content. The Flaming Lips are many things, but graphic isn't one of them. As a result of Jeremy Torres' direction (and of the small space), the enjoyable opening becomes layered with tension, a mood that only grows terser when this man, Woody (Cole Wimpee), actually arrives.

At first, Woody's presence is that of a thousand other plays: he is all at once crazy, retarded, and depressed, speaking in a sullen, choppy tone that somehow manages to combine all of those traits. After contradicting his own story about being discharged from the army (or being given money, being molested, escaping), he pulls out a nasty, foot-long knife, and accuses Alan of being a "Penetrator," i.e., one of the men in the Black Room who experimented on him. One of the advantages to the theater's set-up (the audience sits almost in the round) is that our reactions to the dangerous blocking become part of the show, and it would be an understatement to say that the show is not only a pitch-dark drama but terrifying, as well.

The show doesn't really answer any of the questions it presents, and it doesn't do much toward resolving the friendship between Max and Woody: there is the feeling that it is content with just scaring the audience with a lot of graphic monologues and in-your-face action. However, it is gripping, and if Jeremy Torres were to tighten up some of the long and artificially inserted pauses of the first half, it would be a far more effective scare tactic about the military. Woody keeps saying that "It was better before," and at times, I'm inclined to believe him -- the play has two distinct halves -- but the experience (far better than anything a movie can throw at you) is worth it for those who have forgotten what it's like to be unsettled by a play.

Friday, June 01, 2007

PLAY: "I.E., In Other Words"

Oh, it would be so easy for me to just say [insert exclamatory rave] for I.E., In Other Words and be done with it. But although Mark Greenfield's inventive epic (yet intermissionless) fable is filled with characters who speak in the postmodern ("Abrupt interruption," "Clearly fake pleasantry to you," or "Oh, Sam dot dot dot"), it's more a clever shorthand than an excuse to back out of writing. Between the excellent ensemble (The Bats, the Flea's young resident company) and the tight direction of Kip Fagan, the show is a rollicking absurdity, as much musical as Adam Rapp's recent Essential Self-Defense and as bitterly metadramatic in atmosphere as Urinetown, right down to the use of places like Localtownsville and Citycity. Even Michael Casselli's set design is modish, a long curtain that unfurls across the basement theater like a hip skin for one's iPod.

Sam (a resolutely charming Teddy Bergman) is looking for fame so that he can win the heart of his fickle, cucumber-eating sweetheart, Jen (the sweet Elizabeth Hoyt), and her father-figure, Uncle Pop. His journey takes him from the sunny countryside and its villainous Pete Shemp (Jaime Robert Carrillo) to the gloomy cityscape, and from the yokels to the ethnic stereotypes. Not every joke works, but they aren't given enough time to fall flat on their face: the play has thirty-three characters (played by fourteen actors) and is only ninety minutes. So we'll get to meet the disco-dancing Good Cops in the same breath that we encounter Nathaniel, the sort of cell mate who would rape you, if he didn't find it so cliche. Actors also have the opportunity to play a wide variety of hammy hipsters, like Kelly Miller, who kills as a semiotics instructor, or Kina Bermudez, who is welcome to bring pies on stage any time.

The show is a long way from being crisp (the sound cues were way off, although the actors played them off for laughs), and some of the musical numbers falter (intentionally, for some). But when it comes together, as with Jen and Sam's overlapping letter-writing duet about the expositional passage of time, there's something thrillingly trendy about it. And when the going gets weird, the going gets good: who wouldn't laugh at the pointed question "You got something against ghosts fucking?"

I.E., In Other Words, you should go and see this show while it's still fresh off the funny farm. Good ideas, good execution, and the always intimate Underground of the Flea make for one great evening of theater, no matter how you parse it.