Wednesday, November 12, 2008

As We Speak

Photo/Leigh Celentano

There was a time in this country when I believed that negative reviews were pointless, but As We Speak--which must immediately shut up--has awakened me to my duty as a critic--no, as an American. Revere-like, I must warn each and every one of you away from this awful production. There's nothing wrong with (re:) Directions Theatre Company commissioning a play based on Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, especially given the political climate in 2007 and some of the fervent, barely restrained fascism ("Country First") in the recent presidential race. But if director Tom Berger feared that Lewis's satirical play might "move a bit slowly for a modern audience," then he has a lot to account for (two acts worth, in fact).

Anything taken to extremes is dangerous, so John Patrick Bray ignores research and common sense and simply makes the Minutemen a legalized militia across all of America; uses the Patriot Act not just to tap phones, but to remove people's phones and televisions (which is a bit redundant); and then initiates martial law in order to round up all the illegal immigrants (or sympathizers) into concentration camps. But it's impossible to be scared of something so laughingly plotted and abysmally produced. No wonder the actors spend most of the time shrouded in darkness (Tim Kaufman's lighting), mumbling their lines (Kyle-Steven Porter and Anthony Rand), or simply blowing their cues (either Kathryn Lawson or Sarah Engelke): they don't want to be identified. Even the good things--David Bengali's YouTube projections and feed of Election Night newsrooms--are bad, for they make the live performances more unbearable.

Noreen (Alisyn Brock), a liberal/English-major/Jew (covering all the bases), has moved back to Buffalo to get a master's degree in something that involves her idling at a computer, chatting and blogging about voting trends (action-packed!), and indignantly watching clips of Reverend Harrison (Michael Bertolini, who, by making the religious Right sound plausible, is the one good actor in this play). She brings her husband, Travis (Anthony Rand), along, but he is mercifully abducted right after the election on account of the illegal immigrants he's hired to cook in his restaurant. Unfortunately, this leaves Noreen to confront her former husband, Chad (Michael Littner), in a series of increasingly shrill scenes in which neither Brock nor Littner speaks with a scrap of anger, fear, or personal opinion--to say nothing of dignity.

To be fair, none of the actors have any emotion: they bray and bray (the playwright is aptly named) until the play is reduced to sheer parable, which would be mildly effective if it were in the least plausible. When Jennifer (Michelle Rabbani), Chad's current girlfriend, breaks curfew to post anti-government propaganda, she is tortured and made an example of by Man 2 (Case Aiken), who likens the pulp-horror act of pulling out all of her teeth to an act of mercy he once performed on a dog that would have otherwise been killed. This is the play's methodology: stretch a scene to fit an anecdote that is blandly recited and you make a point. And that's a "good" scene: there's plenty that just doesn't make sense, like the chief of staff, Stanz (Rajesh Bose), born and raised in India, never being suspected of being anything less than American.

As We Speak is too interested, ultimately, with saying things rather than actually speaking for something. Ensemble members throw out lines like "If progress is moving forward, then what is congress?" as if they were being clever (or original); they walk carefully to their marks on stage and dryly recap all the horrors happening off stage, which perhaps we might care for, were we not already in so much pain ourselves. This one-dimensional play (and that's giving it the benefit of the doubt) deserves its one-dimensional characters: neither show the slightest ability to penetrate the surface, let alone speak on it. As disgusted as I am by people like Sarah Palin, she at least speaks for something she believes in (even if she knows nothing): the entire company behind this mess ought to take a few cues from her example and disappear.

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