Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Aliens with Extraordinary Skills

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Saviana Stanescu is walking a very narrow tightrope with Aliens with Extraordinary Skills, a play which deals with serious issues in a very lighthearted way. And yet, she's right to forgo a safety net: propelling herself into the void, Stanescu creates a beautiful, vibrant world, centered around two immigrants--clowns--who face deportation. Nadia (the tremendous Natalia Payne) is the naive heroine, who has high-definition dreams of Sex in the City, a wide-eyed wonder of a character who fled her homeland, Moldovia, because the people there were too poor to be made happy. Meanwhile, her friend, Borat (Seth Fisher) is hung up in the small details, finding it hard to crack a smile when others take advantage of him, and even harder to separate his feelings of love from his necessities for a green card.

Nadia ends up living with the attitudinal Lupita (a very fresh Jessica Pimentel), a nightclub's "entertainment professional" who fiercely demands the rights to her own dreams, one Manolo Blahnik at a time. And it's here, in a Washington Heights at least as real as the one in In The Heights, that she meets Bob (Kevin Isola, a real card), a slacker-philosopher who has already made the mistake of turning his back on his dream. Romance ensues, but sweetly so, for Stanescu takes Bob's advice: "When you are forced to pay closer attention to people's words, you actually communicate better." By focusing on language, Stanescu excuses the liberties she takes with some of the more fanciful plot devices, and her deliberately inelegant choices create some truly original and unfettered moments, moments where language grows fuzzy and swoons: "I want to . . . sit on a couch together, drinking vodka, watching TV . . . Making out . . . Making love . . . A LOT. Until we're dizzy-dizzy, but good-dizzy-dizzy. I just want to love you. To spend the rest of my life with you."

Also keeping this big three-ring "Circus called Life" in motion is the highly acrobatic director, Tea Alagic, who brightly maintains Nadia's childish perspective even in the midst of the play's darker elements. Kris Stone's set is minimal--bleak, actually--but colorful lights are often projected onto the stage (in conjunction with Gina Scherr's lighting design), and these keep us locked in the realm of imagination. Jennifer Moeller also helps, juxtaposing elements of both worlds into the costumes, a visualization that Alagic takes a step further by allowing some of the action to take place in the aisles, where the fanciful characters stand in direct contrast to the dull audience. Rounding things out are the real clowns of the show, two jazzical, fast-talking INS agents (Gian Murray Gianino and Shrine Babb) who menace Nadia's nightmares even as they maintain the illusion of Stanescu's storybook world, a world that begins with a balloon-animal's parable.

This constantly shocking sweetness is highly effective and it achieves the most important goal of a play: it shifts our perspective. Whatever your stance on immigration, Stanescu's upbeat mood overwrites it. Borat drives a cab just as well as his alterego, "Steve from Tennessee," and his heart beats just as fiercely as Lupita's. In a craigslist conversation, spoken smiley faces and all, we are all equal, and dressed up like a hamburger or soda, we are meant to be together, for we are all--especially this play--extraordinary.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays

For anyone who thinks they know theater, it's time to go back to school. Specifically, the Village Community School, where the daring Electric Pear Productions has set up The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays, an intimate series of three site-specific one-acts that put the "cool" back into "school." (There's even a bake sale in the cafeteria.) For our entertainment, they've ripped up the lesson plans and gone with a more mature sort of education: Ann Marie Healy's "The Grafton School" indulges in a little ritual sacrifice, the teacher in Clay McLeod Chapman's "Rugrats" is upset about getting herpes from your kindergartner, and the balloon-animal condoms of Zayd Dohrn's "Sex-Ed" are far from the biggest problem with this math teacher-turned-sexpert's lesson plan. By thrusting us into the tiny chairs of various classrooms and putting us in the hands of stylistically different playwrights, The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays captures the fear and excitement of that first day of school: you never know quite what's coming next.

Healy's piece takes a very human issue--the desperate attempts of Frederick (Christian Conn) and Miranda (Erin Felgar) to place their daughter in capable hands--and twists it with a comic and slightly supernatural edge. (One should always be cautious of a school with a 12:1 teacher/student ratio.) As the creepily overkind headmistress Nathalie (Kathryn Grody) plies her guests with chocolates and statistics, Miranda's nerves start to overwhelm her, leading to trust issues with her scholastically enthusiastic husband. It's well-acted, and the close confines help to play up Felgar's panic; the only problem is that Kerry Whigham's direction only uses a small corner of the classroom, basically turning it into a miniature theater.

Francesca Mantani Arkus, who directs Dohrn's play, takes a far more active approach: the blackboard is covered in graphic slang (from "fuzz box" to "Ground Zero" and "schlong" to "Little Elvis" . . . I hope someone's brought an eraser), a half-dozen containers of condoms (and a dental dam) are strewn across an activity table, and Craig (Gabriel Field) is in the middle of inflating a condom when his final parent, Melanie (Nairoby Otero), walks in. Dohrn's well-timed and exaggerated jokes are similar to Healy's, but his material is more attuned to school life (he even addresses the afterschool special), and because Arkus keeps the actors moving through the room, stepping over audience toes (even as the pointed dialogue steps on them), the play has more of an effect in line with the overall aesthetic.

It's Clay McLeod Chapman's piece--and Rebecca Lingafelter's performance--that nail the whole thing down. Chapman's penchant for monologues allows Lingafelter to directly address the audience as if it were one collective parent, and his use of beautiful ugliness ("snot like petrified mother of pearl," "rose petal sores") is enhanced by all of a classroom's inherent contradictions. The play builds perfectly, too, from Lingafelter's initial descriptions of unsanitary behavior in the classroom to her self-pitying explanation of why she never gets a second date (who'd call her back after getting pink eye?) and all the way up to her twisted tale of revenge. The entire thing is also neatly paralleled with the grittier side of Thanksgiving: the increasingly infected natives had very little to be thankful for.

The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays may be set in a school, but it's far from a textbook case of theater, and on that rubric-smashing ground alone, it deserves to be noticed. But it has gold stars in each of its playwrights and extra credit through the backing of a edgy, unconventional theater company: if you miss this, consider yourself far too grounded.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Underpants

Photo/Jen Maufrais Kelly

Steve Martin's certainly the right person to pun . . . ahem, pen . . . an adaptation of Carl Sternheim's 1911 social comedy, The Underpants: who better to, um . . . beat around the bush? The problem is that those frilly things are worn under a wardrobe of ordinary characters, stifling the more natural wit that burst out of every page of Martin's earlier play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile. No wonder, then, that Seth Soloway finds it necessary to put this Gallery Players production on high spin, overplaying the comedy in attempt to wring out the humor . . . an attempt that not only works, but, thanks to the stellar cast, irons out some of the kinks.

Picasso was a fine glass of wine toasting the artistic genius of our time; The Underpants is a six-pack of cheap beer hastily chugged to numb the unhappiness of our home life. Were the circumstances slightly different, Louise Maske (Catia Ojeda) could easily be Ibsen's Nora, but the comic tone is set when her husband, Theo (Justin Herfel) impotently criticizes her for her loose underpants, the scandalous sight of which--in broad daylight! at the King's parade!--have put his clerking job at risk. Martin throws in highbrow humor--"The whole event lasted two seconds," says Louise, to which Theo retorts, "Haven't you heard? Time is relative!"--but Soloway makes the right choice in speeding through these jokes, lumping them right in with the blunt innuendos of the farce that follow ("I'll slip in and out without you knowing," promises an adulterer).

As it turns out, the underpants have created a stir in this repressed 1910 German empire, and it's not long before two oglers/lodgers arrive: Versati (Nat Cassidy), a wildly liberal romantic poet, and Cohen (Jason Schuchman), a conservatively nebbish barber. Along with Theo's clockwork moralism, these men set the tone of the play, while Louise finds herself alternately liberated and frustrated by their advances, egged on by a nosy neighbor, Gertrude (Amy L. Smith). Again, Martin struggles to put his voice in Sternheim's characters, and though he trips over Cohen's bland attempts to hide his Jewishness (no fault of the very funny Schuchman), he wildly succeeds with Versati, a wild and crazy guy who is closer to his own heart (and apparently Cassidy's, for he steals every single scene).

According to Martin, the play symbolizes the clash between romance, jealousy, and fantasy, but those things are too lofty for the base material. Instead, Soloway plays it for laughs, and by shedding the bulky morals, he gets them, exposing the sheer side of Martin's Underpants in all their glory.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Refuge of Lies

When a play about Holocaust vengeance ends up playing anti-Semitic stereotypes, it's difficult to take seriously. In Ron Reed's Refuge of Lies, this problem is compounded by an unreliable "hero," Rudi (Richard Mawe), who was definitely once called Werner but only may have betrayed the Jewish population in Holland and who, in any case, is now a 71-year-old baptized Sunday school teacher with a slowly eroding mind. If the punishment must fit the crime, as Simon (Drew Dix) believes, then Rudi must be separated from his wife, Nettie (Lorraine Serabian), extradited to a specific location in Europe, held prisoner for a certain amount of time, and possibly be killed. (In this sick cycle, the punishment ends up being worse than the crime of collaboration.) Never mind that this is an adaptation of a true story (look up Jacob Luitjens): Reed overwrites every circumstance, thoroughly repeating himself in this exhausting two-act, and the result is far from truthful.

Aside from the sloppy, sentimental writing, Refuge of Lies also faces major problems from its cast and crew: only Michael Jarett, who creates an effortless and transporting lighting design for all the flashbacks and symbolic changes, seems in charge of his craft. The rest aren't terrible (only Libby Skala, who wildly gesticulates every line--probably because they lack such naturalism to begin with--is unwatchable), but they stand like wobbly dominos, falling over one another in the scene changes. Death of a Salesman is an excellent template, but Miller's style has gone to pot here, first used too broadly, telegraphing every move, and later used too erratically, with the action taking place in the shadows behind a scrim.

The picture Reed wants to get across is quickly painted in the first scene: Rudi and Nettie play cards amicably with their friends, Hannah (Joanne Joseph) and Conrad (Arthur Pellman). Upstage of this golden hour, in accordance with Rudi's playful story of a hallucination he had while driving, is the approaching storm: a Hassidic Jew, lurking in the shadows. Things grow more heavyhanded, as Simon rails against his prop of a niece, Rachel (Skala), explaining that in a few generations, no-one will remember the Holocaust. Just as he dehumanizes Rudi, focusing specifically on a past crime, so does Reed turn the characters into the pawns of a story. "Sure that's what he did," apologizes Rachel, "but is that all he ever did?" In this play, especially given the chessboard staging from Steve Day, it is: as Rudi, Mawe is reduced more and more to a stock character, and by the end, turned into nothing more than--literally--a shadow puppet, as two-dimensional as they come, and the epitome of a black-and-white plot.

It's impossible for material so freighted with an emotional background to be lifeless on stage, but it's the audience that does the lion's share of work in Refuge of Lies, filling in their own blanks. When, forty years from now, an archivist reads this and decides to punish the playwright for the crime of this play, let us hope that he finds it in him to be slightly more compassionate than me.

Monday, September 22, 2008

metaDRAMA: Infectious Smiles

I don't blog politically, and I generally keep this site focused on discussions of plays--the output, and interpretation thereof, rather than on the method behind the madness.

But no matter what context you look at this in, can you help but smile a little? Perhaps there are universal things after all . . .

Thanks Rob Weinert-Kendt (someone's happily married).

Southern Promises

Photo/Ryan Jensen

Slavery is wrong, period, a simple truth that will surprise no-one in the educated crowd at PS122. What will surprise them--especially given the emphatic and broad strokes of Thomas Bradshaw's writing--is how strongly the acknowledgment of such a vast moral wrong can still impact them.

As Isaiah (Peter McCabe) lies on his deathbed, his wife, Beth (Lia Aprile), hesitates before promising to free his slaves, and in that moment, we see the hopes of married houseslaves Benjamin (Erwin E. A. Thomas) and Charlotte (Sadrina Johnson) go up in smoke. It's 19th century Virginia, after all, and as Beth explains to her abolitionist brother-in-law, David (Jeff Biehl), "There is no good reason to squander such property," especially when it would be a cruelty to release them into the wild. No, not with "so many good masters to take care of them," an opinion seconded by Beth's pastor brother, John (Hugh Sinclair), who understands that "kindness ruins these animals." Such broad, boldly contrasting statements, all spoken without the shred of remorse or awareness, degrade not only Benjamin and Charlotte, but the audience, which suffers vicariously through them. Hypocracy triumphs, for promises are apparently made to be broken, and since God loves everyone and works in mysterious ways, it's alright for people to hate niggers and work in greedy, selfish ways. (How things have changed . . .)

What's more effective, though far from shocking, is the physicality of the show, which introduces a sort of subtle explicitness that is expertly handled by director Jose Zayas and actors Thomas and Johnson. It is not so much the injustice of Beth forcing Benjamin to betray his wife for the sake of her own sexual fantasies as it is the look in Benjamin's eyes as he tries to clench back emotion and preserve his dignity, only to be betrayed by his body. The nudity of the body is not what is graphic: the naked emotions are what burn.

In this case, Bradshaw's choice not to develop his tormentors works: we aren't meant to sympathize. We're meant to see black and white--literally--and to deal with the fact that this heap of cruelties were not only meaningless to the perpetrators, but everyday occurrences. They're all secretly evil, too: David marries Beth, but not to free her slaves. Instead, he uses the false promise of freedom to fuck Charlotte, and repays her by selling her to another plantation. Despite his own affair, he vows to castrate and bury Benjamin alive as retribution for Beth's use of him.

Most graphic of all, Southern Promises is funny, squirming an uncomfortable laugh to the surface. The sheer offensiveness of what these villains say and do would be overwhelming otherwise, and so when Benjamin makes his escape in a 4' X 3' box, he is of course dropped several times by clumsy porters. To console Benjamin after his wife is sold, he is given a turkey leg and three small pieces of cornbread, one of which John steals. And then there's plain hypocracy, as when John and David pray for Beth's "poor nigger child" . . . who they have just suffocated.

Save for one misstep in which Benjamin dreams of being the master (which tarnishes his suffering), Southern Promises is a fine work of evocative theater. That it is not harder to watch says something more about the audience than it does about the highly capable cast and crew, who have created a lingering mood that sends aftershocks long after the curtain call.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A Number

Caryl Churchill's A Number is dismissively vague about its plot, its language is built to circumlocate the small scraps of detail the characters are dying for, and it runs under an hour. And yet, every minute is brilliant . . . or at least, it should be. But Clockwork Theatre's revival of this play lacks the necessary nuance, focusing more on the literal science than the literary humanity, and their production comes across as digital rather than analog and certainly far from Swiss in its precision. These short, sharp pinpricks of lines no longer muse on identity ("If that's me over there, who am I?"); instead, they are heavyhanded runs of emotionally dry dialogue.

In a series of five scenes, Salter (Sean Marrinan), a static presence ("If you'd tried harder, you'd have been different from what you were like, and you weren't, were you?") is confronted by three of his sons (all played by Jay Rohloff). There's Bernard 1, now forty years old, stunted, somewhat psychotically, in his childhood--his mother a deeply depressed and ultimately suicidal woman, and his father, Salter, an emotionally distant wreck with a drinking problem. Then there's Bernard 2, a thirty-five-year-old clone, meek and mild-mannered, who Salter had created in a selfish attempt to redeem himself for placing the original in childcare. At last, there's Michael Black, another clone from the same batch (one of 21), who, as a happy, well-adjusted model citizen, serves as the ultimate kick for nurture over nature: asked, at the end of the play, if he likes his life, he replies, simply, "I do, yes," and then jabs the knife in, "sorry."

For this neat trick to work, Salter needs to remain aloof, a blameless, emotionally distant man, and at the start, Marrinan seems to have that down: when Bernard 2 comes to him with the news, he is better at haggling about how much to sue for than actually comforting his son's concerns that he might not be the original: "Because I'm your father" has never seemed like such a weak excuse before. But when Bernard 1 enters, Marrinan breaks his stony facade, and comes off as a child himself, begging to be loved with big pants of hammy sorrow. This makes it harder for Rohloff, who ends up competing with Marrinan in each scene to show just how different he can be, and ultimately relying on superficial changes (like a cockney accent, or a threatening costume) to help him get his point across. Ultimately, these lines of both characters are taken at face value, with nothing invested underneath them: Bernard 1 is angry, sure, and justifably so, but he's never thirty-five-years-worth-of-stored-up-resentment frightening.

That inner machinery--the really complex ticking of the heart--is what's so sorely missing from this production of A Number. Beverly Brumm's direction, like Larry Laslo's boring set design, takes everything literally, and, along with the acting, flattens out the play, focusing on the science (there are projections of cell division between scenes) rather than on the characters. There are moments when all the gears and cogs spin in alignment, but only a number of them.

Monday, September 15, 2008

metaDRAMA: A Word of Warning

Just because it can be done, doesn't meant it should be done:

Fox is developing a contemporary take on the classic Walt Disney tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, tentatively titled Georgia and the Seven Associates, as an hour-long dramedy, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
This is why I'm not a fan of copyright law: it stands in the way of genuine creative writing, while at the same time enabling rich corporations to go balls-out in their generic modern adaptations of classic tales. What really astounds me is that they seem to think they can milk this concept--not a long animated film (or fairy tale) to begin with--as an hour-long dramedy. I would very much like to meet the executive board that thinks this will in any way be appealing to anyone; better yet, can I ask kindly that they look in a mirror, mirror on the wall?

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Before there was the lipsticked bulldog, Sarah Palin, there was another god-inspired bulldog, the importantly self-named Carrie A. Nation, who saw herself as "a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn't like." She's just enough of a lunatic legend to fit the profile for the acclaimed but very experimental group Radiohole, who juxtapose this thoroughly old-fashioned anti-drink anarchist with their own ultrachic hedonistic aesthetic, placing her not at Jesus's feet, but at "de" base of Kenneth Anger's dated film clips (a nice mix, since he was heavy into sex and the occult).

ANGER/NATION is performance art, meant to be actively experienced, which makes it difficult to talk specifically about the show. A hatchet is used, and not symbolically, as are two highly pressurized air rifles (though in this case, due to the high levels of pain, hopefully symbolically); Caesar makes a drunken appearance, as does a boobied President Taft: these should give you some idea of the ideas floating around Eric Dyer, Scott Halvorsen Gillette, and Maggie Hoffman's heads (and, I hope, within the latter's very pregnant belly). Between snippets of quoted text from Nation (Hoffman), who vampirishly drips blood from her lips, and contemporary dissonance from, say Karl Rove, samplings of sound swell through the theater, daringly loud, and Dyer and Gillette perform ritualized movements that extend well beyond comedy or drama.

They're also, at times, well beyond common sense, but this can be a very liberating thing: as freeing in one-dimension as Carrie believed her bar-smashing to be in another (releasing the souls of those poor drunkards from their addiction). It's hard to imagine what a Radiohole afterparty might be like: the audience is plied with booze from an onstage keg from the getgo, and both Dyer and Gillette (along with Iver Findlay) chug recognizable beers and oddly colored shots throughout the performance. ANGER/NATION feels like stumbling into the basement of a club, bass music still vibrating through the walls and seats, just in time to overhear the deep and drunken ramblings of the select few who truly believe they can alter reality.

Radiohole is a ballsy group (Gillette takes this literally), and their work is so original that it may be discomforting to those who have worked so hard to think inside a black box. Ironically, the calm anticlimax of the show (Zen Buddhism is referenced) is what actually made audience members walk out: no-one likes to hang out and cuddle after a good mindfuck. But every now and again, it's worth having your mind blown.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Oh What War

Photo/Ryan Jensen

A twitch at first, and then a knotted-up tremor ripples across the face of Bunnich (Magin Schantz), a victim not only of the war she's fled but to the memories she's lost while submerged deep in the metaphoric hole of her new world. As she attempts to stomp out a stable rhythm, supported by her friends, a ragtag and anonymous group of deserters, she half-whispers a song, leaving out two simple words from J. P. Long's 1917 original: just like that, Joan Littlewood's 1963 play Oh What a Lovely War becomes Jason Craig's 2008 Oh What War, and while the clownish satire, the Brechtian juxtaposition of songs, and the projection of violent imagery remain, what a difference those missing words make.

There's been some scavenging to be sure, but in line with the mission statement of Juggernaut Theatre Company, everything old is new again: there's Lisa Dove quietly rearranging old songs so that they maintain their standard meter and style, but with added complexities and anguish; there's Peter Ksander, rigging a projector above a kid-sized pool of mud, so that the white-hot images of soldiers can ripple through it; there's Craig's complexly beautiful language ("I stared at the pea having just tickled me through and through / And then I screamed / And screaming brought rust blood / Six holes shooting streaming / I became my own comic relief as I imagined spinning and spraying like a sprinkler"). You can cite the Dada of Cabaret Voltaire all you like in the estranging vignettes of the so-called "Deserters," or the influence of the Marx Brothers during a privateering session ("There's not much business in stale, still peace"), but there's hardly a stale moment.

To that end, credit Mallory Catlett, who, as a long-time director of Craig's work, like The Fall and Rise of the Rising Fallen, can maintain his frenetic energy even when it is confined within a more dramatic, difficult, and down-tempo production. There is stage magic in the blurring radio remixes from G. Lucas Crane set to the trench crawling of shadowy figures who brush the ceiling, and in dances set in the mud and songs gasped through a cloud billowing smoke (hold the mustard). Her work with the cast is meticulous, too: Merz (Scott Sowers) alternates between Polish, German, Italian, and French (at least), an Everyman amalgamate that singlehandledly illustrates the underlying humanity (and comic timing) of every soldier, but he comes across so clearly that translations would be superfluous. Hennings (Kelli Rae Powell), a droll and melancholy host ("I created this lazy lethargy by lulling these fine foreign fools into this muddy boudoir"), seems a complete character after a single introductory monologue.

However, things start to get muddier toward the end of the play. Craig catches himself growing a bit repetitious, and so he switches from his nonlinear snippets into a cramped cabaret conclusion, and then pushes politics too hard with the ghostly image of the innocent Poster Boy (a talking head if there ever were one), a sort of exquisite corpse of the surgeon's design, turning on his creators, demanding that we look at what we have wrought. By turning away from the tremulous language and potent stories (Bunnich recounts a collection of bottles she found on the battlefield, each with a tooth and a dated paper with the word "sorry") and instead turning the bright lights on the audience, Oh What War flares out of focus.

In one of the earliest, and strongest scenes, Bunnich and Flooze (Jessica Jelliffe) present a slideshow on World War I, focusing on the comic doings of the Black Hand Gang. "They showed them," one will say, "Showed them what?" replies the other. In the words of one of those old-timey melodies, appropriated by (and appropriate to) the play, "Who could ask for anything more?" Because we can't explain war: we can only look at interpretations of it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

metaDRAMA: Big Ben Strikes Twelve

Tip o' the hat to Rob Kendt for pointing out Ben Brantley's self-written bio for the Times "topics" page (a sort of high-society Wiki). While I don't doubt that Ben loves the theater--I've found myself sitting near him before--and I agree with Rob that "we love the theater not wisely but too well" (and with Isaac that there's a Fred Armisen look to that photo: "Ay, dios mio!"), I wanted to call attention to one small thing.

It’s nowhere near as intense as what I imagine an actor experiences backstage, but I feel a fluttering nervousness before a curtain goes up on a play. I mean, any play, anywhere – on Broadway or the Bowery or in a church basement.

That’s because theater is as live and in-person as art gets. Whether you like it or not, a performance’s triumphs and belly flops come to seem excruciatingly intimate, as if you were somehow partly responsible for them.

This too, may be true, and it's important to remember that he's been professionally writing since '75, and focused on theater since '94 or so, but there's a huge divide between the sort of theater Ben now covers regularly for The New York Times and the sort of theater I go to. I don't think that South Pacific is anywhere near "as live and in-person as art gets." Actually, I find that there's usually a very well-maintained divide between the audience and the artists, a chasm, if you will, that generally grows even greater when we encourage stunt casting, with all the built-in otherness of celebrity (which is not to say that I'm not looking forward to Equus all the same).

I don't think Ben takes flak from the blogosphere because they think he hates theater: it's because he, and many top-tier critics, seem to shy away from the muddy roots of that organism they so adore and admire. When was the last time Brantley reviewed a show that was on the Bowery or in a basement? (Well, okay, Arias with a Twist.) Fuerzabruta, which made a point out of really being as "live and in-person as art gets" was skewered by Brantley's colleague, Isherwood, and every time I see someone fawning over a pretty piece of puff, like Rafta, Rafta, or confusing Reasons To Be Pretty for art, I long to see Brantley get down in the trenches with Jason Zinoman or Helen Shaw.

I can understand if Ben's editors or publishers want him to focus on the big money shows, but as the lead drama critic, really, of New York City, I only hope that he will find a way -- just as the artists he so admires do -- to cover a wider, wilder range of material, so that we don't forget how much he loves "the excruciatingly intimate" theater.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Invitation

If Harold Pinter is known for his pregnant pauses, then Brian Parks must be lauded for aborting his, for he's a playwright who skewers social boundaries at supersonic speeds. Think, if you must, of an unhinged Tracy Letts. The Invitation, his latest, starts with a wickedly smart dinner party that quickly sets up its credentials by namedropping Tchaikovsky and having a Bard-off over Troilus and Cressida, and then sets about using all that pointless albeit hyper-intelligent chatter ("Does gossip count as thought?") to expose the impotency of the currency culture, the inadequacy and secret unhappiness of the superrich, for whom grand twelfth-floor views are just as easily prisons as prizes.

Case in point, Marian (Katie Honaker), a hideously offensive social dominatrix, putting others down for the sheer sport of it: as her bitter husband David (David Calvitto) puts it, "Marian's imagination is a bit fertile these days -- from the long period of money raining down on her." She's the sort of person who apologizes for using the word "retard" only because she can use "mongoloid" instead, or wittily coin a new one, like "neo-cretinism." She's an unfettered id, and because Parks is operating a notch away from absurdism, she's able to get away with murder, hitting shock value lines like "Steer clear of menorahs, though -- you never know when someone's going to come along and wipe out the Jews, destroying your resale market" far better (and more originally) than anything LaBute could think of.

It's no surprise, then, that David does at last turn to murder: "At what point in this world of ours, riddled with its pestilence and famine, its fly-covered oprhans and melting ice-caps -- at some point in this God-abandoned vat of suffering and cruelty the self-satisfaction of the Western World becomes a capital crime!" John Clancy is ready and willing to take the leap with Parks: he coats the entire cast (or what remains of it) in blood, and then proceeds to build and build from there, along with the help of the indefatiguable Calvitto, who chews through lines with such savage enjoyment that we'd be happy just to have the scraps of a good play.

Instead, we get a full serving of meat, though to be fair to the one-dimensional characters, most of it is fat. Delicious, chewy, absolutely unhealthy fat, and it's a credit to the entire cast that the arteries of the show never get clogged down any of that. It's hard to mock the shallowness of a culture without getting absorbed by it, but Parks stacks his deck with the always-trump power of original one-liners: "I'll take the First Folio over the Bible any day -- Shakespeare's jokes are intentional." Furthermore, by establishing the similarity of all five characters (Leslie Farrell, Paul Urcioli, and Eva van Dok round things out) in the jocular appetizer to this play, he's able to dole out a lot of "rich" observations about this social strata, from faith to law to culture to politics.

If you enjoy theme-park rides and uncontrollable laughter, you'd better RSVP now.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Photo/Ryan Jensen

There's a little too much Kidstuff in Edith Freni's latest show. What starts as a lost soul's last chance--Eve (Sarah Nina Hayon) runs into her first love, Chet (Justin Blanchard) for a fifteen-year overdue reckoning--quickly turns into a bad comedy routine as her therapist, Lou (Peter O'Connor), has her fellow group members act out their interpretations of her unresolved conflict (Chet's affair). There are a few glimpses of depth, as Sarah (Sharon Freedman) co-opts Eve's story to work out her frustrated relationship with fellow patients Dave (Vincent Madero) and the diva-like Jemma (Cynthia Sylvia), but these are quickly flattened out by absurd actions (a fixation on cake); poor, overly coy dialogue ("Kindly remove your face from my face, please"); and a series of characters who are either crude (like a stereotypically Jewish shopkeeper and morally authoritative priest) or unexplainably shallow (like Eve's angry brother and carefree father).

Such exaggerated caricatures and situations make it hard to ever see Eve as a real person, even though Ms. Hayon does her best to remain level-headed. And there's something to the pace of the play, the way Erica Gould smoothly transitions between the last three months of Eve's life, that does, at times, get across the idea of a woman struggling to stay afloat in a distant and barely comprehensible world. But while Eve may be stuck in the past, rudderless, it makes little sense for the characters around her to be just as childish and lost: Lou abruptly demands that Eve beg him for help, Dave has a desire to play one of the female parts in their reinterpretations of Eve's past, and for some reason, a fourth "actor" is called in to provide another viewpoint for the group sessions--he doesn't, just like these moments utterly fail to shed any light on Eve's life. Even the play's ending is unnecessarily vague: after all that unrelated chaos, it turns out that Eve's had the solidity she craves--a sense of purpose and belonging--all along?

Partial Comfort Productions often end up as exaggerated urban tales, but they've never been so grossly comic, never so unfocused. The seams of this world's makebelieve are too visible, hastily stitched into an hour-long sketch, and they leave the audience with nothing to invest in. It also leaves us unable to even pretend that Kidstuff is a good play.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

King of Shadows

Photo/Carel DiGrappa

You can tell by the sharply polished dialogue of King of Shadows that Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's written comic books. His presentational dialogue and narrative asides are a nice fit for the solid lines of a comic's colorful paneling, and his small talk expertly drives the action forward. ("What kind of noises?" "I don't know--voices." "Suspicious voices?" "Yeah, sure. Loud, suspicious voices.") Even his setting is comic book-like: no one is every truly "dead" (or even really in danger), for while there may be evil, it's always veiled by the safety of words. The fantasy novels he's been influenced by are far from dark (or deep: sorry Shakespeare), and that leaves his hint of magical realism without any bite.

But what audiences can't tell, at first, is where King of Shadows is going, and that's because Aguirre-Sacasa's voice is at least fresh and original. As he builds his world, the show zips by, emitting an emphatically youthful sound. But his material ages quickly, and by the end of the first act, it is overwrought and laborious. Although Connie Grappo's direction valiantly races to beat this doomsday clock (aided by Wilson Chin's quick and tightly streamlined fold-out alleyway of a set), the intermission--which has us mull over the contradictory characters and overcooked plot--sort of kills it.

But things start well, as Jessica (Kat Foster) a naive do-gooder (somewhat redundant, given our selfish culture) tries to use the settlement money from her parents' tragic death to pay things forward to a capital-C Community, her dissertation's "Disenfranchised, At-risk, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Cross-gendered, and Questioning Homeless Youth in the Metropolitan Bay Area." Her latest subject is a boy named Nihar (Satya Bhabha), who we're meant to think is a homeless, meth-using male prostitute only because he prefers the terms "sucking cock" and "getting reamed" to Jessica's prettified "survival sex" terminology. (This is the first of many contradictions: from the way Emily Pepper puts trendy holes in his costume to the housefly-like attitude of Bhabha, he's really just a loveable scamp.) Drawn to his tale of a victimizing "King of Shadows," Jessica offers him sanctuary for two days, despite her cop boyfriend Eric's (Richard Short) warnings and her overprotective feelings for her fifteen-year-old sister, Sarah (an atittudinal Sarah Lord, who steals every scene).

At this point, Aguirre-Sacasa runs out of steam (perhaps he moonlights as the smoke machine) and just starts making things up. Sarah and Nihar, both gay, hook up and plan to run away and Eric, of the flimsy, paragraph-long backstory, is dumped by Jessica shortly after he blurts out a confession of love. Fantasy or not, there isn't a compelling reason for any one of these things to happen, and these stubborn traits read more as plot devices than the elements of character. Worse, Aguirre-Sacasa treats the characters just like Jessica unwittingly treats her sister--"the easiest thing not to deal with"--when he focuses on an easy, fantastical conclusion instead.

"Let me touch something," Jessica says, "a real thing--let me hold it, feel its weight, in my hands; let it live in my mind, in my heart--and I come up...woefully inadequate." Things aren't quite so bad for the playwright, but whether or not he wants to focus on the real world--there are some very bright moments there between the two sisters and the two children--he needs to add an element of danger to the show, something that reminds us it's not just a fairy tale.

Friday, September 05, 2008

A Perfect Ganesh

Workshop Theater's revival of Terrance McNally's A Perfect Ganesh doesn't need a muse of fire--the words are there, after all--but it could use a few more sparks to better kindle the genuine warmth flowing out of Katharine "Kitty" Brynne (Ellen Barry). No more aesthetics are needed: Kitty and Margaret Civil (Charlotte Hampden) are two quite ordinary friends with quiet mundane problems, and by keeping us focused on their reactions--the ways in which they change (or don't)--Peter Sylvester's basic staging benefits the play. After all, though there's one moment of catharsis beside the Ganges, the majority of revelations in this play are often subtle and internal.

But this is where that perfect energy is disrupted: while Hampden is able to get beyond a one-dimensional bitter civility, C. K. Allen and Gary Mahmoud often get bogged down in their accents, losing their characters to a repetitive series of mannerisms or loose comedy. It's not so much a problem for Mahmoud's Ganesha, who, as a monologuing narrator, doesn't hurt anyone by being a bland deity, but when he shuffles across the stage trying to be a petite, kimonoed Japanese woman, it's hard to see how Margaret can open up to that. Likewise for Mr. Allen, who takes the cultural punch out of the serving class characters he portrays: all those bitter anti-American feelings, which ought to be even more prescient today, come across as cheap, and easily dismissed, jokes. More importantly, Allen plays two gay men: one, the ghost of Kitty's dead, gay-bashed son, and two, a sick but optimistic man who has come, with his lover, to India--not expecting to be healed, but so as to really live. These roles are critical, as they give Kitty a chance to release the past and embrace the future, but Allen only hints at the deeper emotions beneath those feverish facades.

Luckily, the two female leads are very strong, and if the emphasis ends up on their own fractured friendship (it's astonishing how little we often know about our "closest" friends), so be it: secrets and confrontations make for good drama, too. They don't, however, hold our attention for the close-to-three-hours scope of A Perfect Ganesh: hopefully Sylvester will pick up the pace, even if he never manages to really fire things up.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

metaDRAMA: Critic on the Spot

I have to say, I've very much been a fan of Extra Criticum's "Critic on the Spot" series, and I think their first choice, Leonard Jacobs, of the Clyde Fitch Report (not to mention NY Press and Back Stage), has made some spot-on observations and revelations about a craft that is, by necessity, highly subjective. However, as a rather young critic who started reviewing professionally at 21 (I'm now 24), I do have to take exception to Leonard's statement that "no 22-year-old should be reviewing." To be fair, he mentions in the same breath that he started writing for The Village Voice at 22, and he's being quoted on whether or not he regrets anything that he wrote when he was younger. But there's a difference between regret, shame, and a growing critical voice.

It's true that the younger the writer, the less experienced and technically precise they will be when comparing a show to the entire gamut of theatrical history. But who says that they need to do that, anyway? (To open up an old semantic door, you might not want a 22-year-old to be criticizing, or say, comparing last year's revival of Company to the original production.) I mean, if you're trying to convince a younger crowd to go to the theater, wouldn't you be more likely to trust the opinion of someone your own age, who has tastes that run more in parallel to your own, the only difference being that they see a lot more theater than you? Reviews are not Everyman comments; what John Simon had to say on [title of show] is appropriate for a very specific demographic, but not, by any means, accurate for all (or even for most). (Interestingly enough, if you pick up a book of John Simon's reviews, you can observe for yourself the way in which "age" and "experience" start to change his opinions. Nothing, nothing is ever completely "true" in the liberal arts.)

To get back on point, the experience that I've gotten writing for Theater Talk's New Theater Corps (and later editing the site) has been more helpful than anything I ever learned in school, especially the bits that were self-taught. I've seen young writers swear by the O'Neill Critics Institute (NCI), or by the fellowships they got writing copy for publications like American Theatre. As Leonard says about being a 22-year-old critic (to be fair, only a word or two after laying the smackdown): "What better time is there to learn and to celebrate the form and revel in its possibilities?" End point being: everyone has to start somewhere, and while I'm very glad that I had the opportunities to act, direct, and write (albeit at college) before I started reviewing theater, if I'd gone to a graduate program or waited another five years to start writing, I'd have actually been less experienced than I am now. (I also probably wouldn't have had the opportunity to see so many shows, at all sorts of budgetary levels, if I weren't reviewing them.)

The most important thing is only that we don't defraud ourselves or pretend to be something other than what we are. I'm a 24-year-old critic: you take my opinion or leave it, and you either accept my experience for what it is, or you choose not to trust and agree with my taste and/or voice, which is something that many people do even with older critics who have been in the game for decades. To thine own self be true . . . and remember that to be a critic on the spot, you have to put yourself on the spot first.

[For more reading fodder, you can check out Time Out New York's 2007 piece on "blogger-critics," which tends to skew to writers who are more apt to be on the younger side (and which I contributed to), or for fun, you can see the ultimate exercise in subjectivity in Time Out New York's 2006 critique of critics.]

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Night Maneuver

Photo/Jordan Fleet

You just never know what you're going to take from a play--turns out that while I didn't care much for the acting, another critic found the acting to be just about the only good thing in the show. That leads me to think that, on the whole, things are probably even darker for this show than I painted it for Time Out.

[Reviewed for Time Out New York]