Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Power of Birds

Photo/Rick Berube

Birds are elegant, fascinating creatures; they can also be shrill, annoying, destructive, and--in the worst cases--can nest in the middle of something beautiful and shit all over it. So it's fair to say that Robin Rice Lichtig's new play, The Power of Birds, has a little bit of all of that. Things start off strong--if not a little too aggressive--as super-sports-mother Loretta (Annie McGovern) grows fed up with her absent husband Phillip (Jay Potter), a man with all the social skills of a birdwatcher (which, to be fair, he is), and takes her twelve-year-old twins Zoe and Charlie and their paternal grandmother Lily off to a new life in a new state. Everyone's talking at once as they hurry to pile into a car; meanwhile, flashbacks help us to understand Zoe's connection to her father.

But neither Lichtig nor her director, Elizabeth Bunnell, are very graceful about doing so: in case it's not clear that they're symbolically "migrating," one of the characters says as much later on. Once all the feathers of that initial impulse stop ruffling, the bare-boned flaws underneath jump out. This lack of subtlety is most obvious in the characters: rebellious Zoe (Emma Galvin) pouts and shouts a lot and momma's boy Charlie (Noah Galvin) is afraid of insects, says things like "ROFL" out loud, and quotes Google. Lily (Margot Avery) lays down her hippie credentials hard and fast--leaving out a joint for Charlie to smoke in his attempts to become "cool" ("Chaz da bomb, yo") and explaining that she needs her own Western-facing room so that she can sexually commune with her dead husband at sunset. Even Zoe's nightmares--and this is very much her play--are blatant: "I'd like to be proud of my daughter," says her dream-mother, "I'd like to see she's capable of accomplishing something." Yes, yes, we get it--now be quiet, you're scaring the wildlife away.

On the other hand, the second act's attempts to hyper-correct for the cliches of the first end up hurting The Power of Birds even more. Lichtig's script calls for moments of magical realism throughout--scraps of paper turning to feathers, yarn rolling out of birdcages--but Bunnell rarely manages to bring these moments to life, and this makes the premise of the second act too ludicrous to learn from. Zoe kidnaps her grandmother at knife-point and puts her into a tree-house decked out to look like a bower bird's nest, thinking that the bird drawn to these objects will then talk to her own father--who she clearly sees as magical--and bring him home. It's a desperate, beautiful whimsy of an idea, and at times Emma is able to sell it, but when Charlie is roped into the plot and Loretta fails to worry about her mother-in-law's sudden "trip" to Borneo, or, later, that Lily has actually turned into a bird....

It's not hard to sympathize with someone like Zoe--precocious enough to work hard, but romantic enough to believe that simply wanting something bad enough will make it real. It is, however, hard to sympathize with anyone else in her family, which in turn makes it harder, ultimately, to feel the very real weight on Zoe, which Lichtig, in one of her finer poetic moments, describes as "a sound in her chest." There is no way for Loretta to take flight, locked as she is into the role of tyrant-mother--it's not until the very end of the play, confessing that she's not actually a gold medalist in a desperate attempt to win her daughter back, that we even start to understand her. (Certainly it's not during her comic-relief-inspired decision to take up cooking, though McGovern is at least charming throughout.)

In a migration, birds know where they're going. After seeing The Power of Birds, I'm convinced that Lichtig knows how to fly--and how to coast--but I'm less sure that she knows how to get where she's going.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Whatever Heaven Allows (WHA?!)

"Romantic scenes require careful rehearsal," explains Joseph Silovsky, watching as Maggie Hoffman and Eric Dyer end up locking arms rather than lips, wrestling one another to the ground. "Anything over five seconds," adds Mark Jaynes, "will usually cause the wrong audience reaction." Or, as Erin Douglass interjects throughout the play, sometimes taking off her glasses for emphasis, "Freud. Do you understand now?" Perhaps one reason for the acronymic subtitle of Radiohole's latest, Whatever Heaven Allows, is that the answer is no, most assuredly not, particularly if you haven't seen All That Heaven Allows, a 1954 weepie starring Rock Hudson. As with their last piece, Anger/Nation, this anarchic group seems to be looking for the wrong reaction, taking conventions so far that by comparison, the original "sin" pales in comparison--in this case, the widowed Carrie's (Hoffman's) acceptance and then rejection of the much younger (and socially unequal) arborist Ron Kirby's (Dyer's) marriage proposal. It's no surprise that an innocent deer (Kourtney Rutherford)--a less-than-subtle bit of symbolism from the 1954 film--is filmed in debauched positions throughout the show, and closes the film-within-a-film by pissing on the floor.

The question I'm left with is whether Radiohole is too energetic for its own good: that is, whether or not the manic, occasionally dangerous performances, distract from the thematic underbelly of their press releases. (For instance, WHA?! claims to feature Hoffman as Carrie as Eve and Dyer as Kirby as Satan, mashing up bits of Paradise Lost, but while I may not be expert enough to notice the references--save a comment about a morning star in the prologue--the majority of audiences aren't going to be autodidacts.) Questioning that question, then, is whether that even matters, or if the performance is all. (To be fair, they offer free beer, of which they themselves indulge: the frat-boy Richard Foremans.) Neither question is easily answered: the gut oscillates throughout WHA?! from confused lulls ("Flowers of all hue, and without thorn the rose, meanwhile murm'ring waters fall down the slope hills, dispers'd, or in lake...") to edgy curiosity (the contents of colored shot glasses being flung into the actors' faces) and shocked excitement (a karaoke "I Am Woman").

Also complicating things is the use of dramatic tools to slay the actual drama of WHA?! As Hoffman explains in her descriptive denouement, "This is where the drama that Radiohole won't deliver happens." Within the show, too, the company neatly abbreviates melodrama in a way that exaggerates the pettiness of bourgeois concerns: "So busy. Much to do. Red hair. Knockers. Enormous. Engagements. Requirements," says Douglass, preparing for a dinner party. Summing up two of the men--the ones who would knock down Carrie's love for Ron--"Man, man, man--booze, booze, booze (dick joke), ha-ha-ha! (boob joke) ha-ha-ha!" Incisive, yet at the same time reduced to so little that it leaves the talkier bits of this experimental work feeling dreary and bland.

The introduction to Radiohole's film-within-a-film brags that they are ASSholeOCIATED, and the anarchically entertaining bits of WHA?! give truth to that. But here's what we learn--perhaps intentionally, perhaps not: we do need some limits. "Whatever" cannot be the norm; if everything is allowed, after all, then nothing is permitted.

Friday, February 19, 2010


photo: Patrick Redmond

There's not a single person who would disagree with the heart of Pat Kinevane's Forgotten: "The wasting is ferocious," and so it is. The infirmity of aging--not just physical, but mental--is the most terrible, and just the first, in a series of losses experienced as one nears the inevitability of death. However, fewer people will connect with Kinevane's theatrical expression, which inexplicably mashes together Japanese dance and Irish storytelling in what is an increasingly befuddling slog down broken memory lane. Kinevane's visual choices are too often at odds with his verbal ones: it is hard to know what to make of the thickly accented jabbering of a loin-clothed man undulating across the stage when he suddenly sits down with a cup of tea and an effeminate British accent. You know that there's been some sort of movement-influenced segue, but without the script (actually, even with the script), it's hard to process their stories.

The moments that work are those without character, as when Flor, who goes around spit-shining the stage, batters away an invisible hand, first yelling, then pleading: "I'll bath myself I dont want none of your nursey hussey hands on my Pelt." Of course, such emotional abstraction might just as easily be provoked by a montage of indignities committed against the elderly, or--better yet--by visiting a local nursing home. Less effective is his joking invitation to "join the support group for the Alzheimers Association": "What do we want? We don't know. When do we want it? What?" The horror of Alzheimers is watching familiarity drain away from a loved one--it means nothing to see these ones, none of whom we know or understand, fade away. It's even less effective when he abandons his affectations--like the way Gustus, whose paralyzing stroke Kinevane depicts by performing backward (arms butterflied in front of his back to reduce their mobility) rises to perform a Geisha-like dance. It reminds us how much of a cheat the theater can be, the illusion breaking before our eyes.

The Forgotten is roughly eighty minutes long, so between the four characters and the stylized dances, each person is given just under twenty minutes. But that's not enough to sum up eighty-plus years, not enough to empathize with, especially when their narratives are less than straightforward. (In Flor's case, they're actively delusional.) By the end, Kinevane is working so hard to connect things that his characters--let alone their emotions--are hardly visible. The clearest parts are clung to in the moment, like an old romance of Dora's and Eucharia's disdain for writing a will ("Trouble with a capital R.I.P."), but they're hardly unforgettable, which is fine, because in my case, I wouldn't be looking back fondly.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


There's little in Gabe McKinley's Extinction that hasn't been done before, but why should that stop you from seeing it? Two old "friends"--the bully and his thrall--reunite, at long last bringing forth secrets that will pit one's abrupt decision to grow up against the other's desperate clutching at the dregs of youth. Jealousy will be the deadly sin of the evening, especially now that Finn (James Roday) has gone broke trying to lead the righteous life of a married professor, while Max (Michael Weston) couldn't crap out at a casino if he wanted to, leading the charmed/villainous life of a womanizing pharmaceutical rep. Drugs and prostitutes show up, no doubt, as does a drinking game that brings things to a boil. Despite being set an Atlantic City hotel, it's a very L.A. play.

But this is where the theatrical "survival of the fittest" comes into play, for McKinley's writing is slicker than the average bear's and his jokes do more than demonstrate his own cleverness: they deepen our connection to the characters, from their history of Mick Jagger impersonations to the ease of their offensiveness ("Burlesque," says Max, "is the best thing to happen to fat chicks since black guys") and their remembrances of conquests past ("Jesus, it was like sticking my dick in a beehive"). Max is shameless--he watches porn for "the articles"--and Finn is the sort of guy who looks as if LL Bean puked all over him. And both leads seem to have been naturally selected: Weston's spastic machismo is well-matched by Roday's solemn wistfulness.

Most importantly--and Wayne Kasserman's sharp direction helps--McKinley's comic vices don't overpower the bleak truths of Extinction. The prostitutes Max hires, Missy (Amanda Detmer) and Victoria (Stefanie E. Frame), are far from happy-go-lucky: their unhappiness is clearly hidden, especially since this is Victoria's first time. Finn describes the whole thing as "a Jay McInerney novel," and that's not far from the mark, save for the remorse and consequences being much more immediate. In fact, Kasserman uses Steven C. Kemp's clever see-through set design to show us what awful things happen behind closed doors, the distance perverting our normal sense of intimacy, as if reminding us that we cannot run from ourselves.

So yes, Extinction may have plenty of the same-old same-old, but it's only by running through those familiar paces over and over again that we end up evolving to anywhere new, and in this case, there are at least a few well-earned surprises and some entertaining performances.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sex and Violence

Photo/Daniel R. Winters

The play opens with the grainy shot of a house, punctuation for the monologue Clair (Lauren Roth) delivers about the death of her childhood dream. It's not a good start for a show called Sex and Violence: porn isn't exactly known for its plotting. It's not until the second act, which starts with an irreverent nude scene, that Travis Baker even comes close to being entertaining, but by then the characters are so unappealing that it's hard to get it up. At best, the twisted love between Clair and Chris (Tyler Hollinger) comes across as amateurish Shepard, but director Marshall Mays isn't daring enough to pull that off, especially given how high recent NY productions of Blasted and That Pretty Pretty have set the bar for graphic violence and absurdist sex.

The main problem stems from Baker's attempts at foreplay. Things start to pick up steam when Jimmy (Jake Millgard) heads over to the apartment of Molly (Kendall Rileigh), girlfriend of the man, Chris, who has been fucking his wife, Clair. But instead of following through, Baker switches to the bar-room banter of Chris and Clair, indulging in the sort of small talk made only by those who are trying way too hard to be clever: "To living single, seeing double, and sleeping triple!" Chris--a preening asshole--and Clair--an emotionally empty psychopath--might actually speak like this, but they're neither witty or nuanced enough to get away with such banalities. At least Molly has a refreshingly different stance ("I'm pissed, but fuck it, it's not like we're married"), especially when compared to Jimmy's pathetic blubbering. It's a genuine relief when Jimmy finally rapes Molly; at last, the civility has been dropped. And finally, Clair goes from remembering how she and Chris once played with asphyxiation to actually playing some of those greatest hits.

However, roundabout as Baker's foreplay may have been, it's his technique that really needs work. The second act is a thrown-together wet nightmare, which shoots first and then tries to clean up later. Baker knows that he wants a lesbian scene, so Clair goes over to Molly's and--after pushing her around--suddenly decides to go down on her. He also wants to show his edginess, so he has Chris get revenge for Molly--by raping Jimmy on a swing-set. In between, he also wants to show off his pop cultural references, so his characters talk of Alias, Buffy, and Shade the Changing Man, even after one of them is shot in the stomach. As for the direction, Mays finally finds a way to join the two parallel narratives (at one point, Chris "borrows" Molly from her scene in order to have her demonstrate something in his); naturally, there's no logic behind this trick either, save that it looks cool, which to be fair, should have been expected from a play as mindlessly titled as Sex and Violence.

The result of all this mindless action may keep Sex and Violence from being just another bland show, but that doesn't make it any less tasteless. Porn reveals skin; theater's supposed to reveal something more. By refusing to truly let any of his characters get emotionally naked--to actually invest something in their pain--Sex and Violence is just another vanilla strip-tease.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Measure for Measure

Theater for a New Audience's production of Measure for Measure, as directed by Arin Arbus, is crisp, clean, and totally unsurprising. It is, sadly, Shakespeare for Shakespeare, though Peter Ksander's cold-as-a-city-planned acre of stage and David Zinn's mostly modern dress would have you believe otherwise. More importantly, it's bad Shakespeare--what is already somewhat stilted given the more-and-more notable gaps in language is made even more artificial by the aimless plot. (Not for nothing do some scholars call this a problem play.) The straightforward approach taken here, in other words, is a mistake. 

Ironically, the play itself revolves around shaking things up: the soft-willed Duke (Jefferson Mays), loathe to apply the rod but knowing that he cannot continue to spare Vienna's citizens from it, pretends to leave, trusting that his deputy, Angelo (Rocco Sisto) will do the job for him. This leads to the brothel-running bawds of the city, like Mistress Overdone (Mary Testa, whose role is so limited that she ought to be called underdone), being jailed. As abuses of power go, it then extends to people like Claudio (LeRoy McClain) who have made the mistake of impregnating the women they love--in this case, Juliet (Rose Seccareccia)--before marrying them. In this topsy-turvy world, trouble-makers like Pompey (a wily John Keating) are promoted from prisoners to executioner's assistants, and criminals like Barnardine (Joe Forbrich) are permitted to refuse execution. Shakespeare offers no reason (some rhyme, though) for the constant blabbering of a rogue like Lucio (the terrific Alfredo Narciso), save that he understood (centuries before his time) the appeal of senseless entertainment. 

How to resolve these things, then, with the actual plot, in which the Duke, now disguised as a Friar, seeks to help Claudio's sister, Isabella (Elisabeth Waterston), free her brother without sacrificing her chastity to an admittedly less-than-pious Angelo? It hardly helps that Mays is rigid and humorless in his approach, nor that Waterston is so chaste and guileless in hers; they've both got energy to spare, but that's because they don't know what to do with it. Furthermore, with everyone defying orders left and right, particularly among the bawds, it's hard to believe in the consequences, no matter how well Escalus (a committed Robert Langdon Lloyd) sticks to them. Measure for Measure succeeds only when it is not taken seriously: for instance, Sisto is able to get away with Angelo's sudden reversal from saint to sinner by going all out, groping Isabella as much with his words as with his hands.

Nonsense only works in a professional setting if everyone carries it with a straight face, at which point it's (hopefully) satire. But Arbus is as inconsistent in her direction as Shakespeare is in his writing, and the result is a staging that intensely focuses on a play that is utterly without focus. This production of Measure for Measure is like taking your mother to a strip-club: wildly inhibiting.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Playing Cricket

For the last eight years, Cricket (Nic Tyler) has been loitering in an ivy tower, refusing to finish his philological dissertation. It's more comfortable cracking wise from the comfort of a librarianship than to face the consequences of the real world, even if that means young graduates like Raoul (Gabriel Sloyer) and aged department heads like Professor Stumpf (Ronald Guttman) get to openly mock him. Besides, it leaves him free to ogle girls like the silent Aida (Afton Boggiano), and especially ones like Debra (Jessica Chazen), who will let you do a whole lot more than ogle--if you'll give them an A. It also leaves him free to help mild-mannered academics like George Hobson (Richard Burndage) not only get the girl--Karen (Brynne Kraynak)--but to best wily rivals like Mr. Fergeson (Tom Bateman). But playwright Andrew Bauer has made Playing Cricket as unfortunately aimless as Cricket, Eleonore Dyl's direction is as by-the-books bland as a lecture, and both the costumes and actors are generally as dry and dusty as the school's run-down library.

At a student-faculty dinner, Stumpf decides to lecture on the difference between saying something and meaning something, thereby demonstrating the very nature of what he's talking about. In fact, Bauer fills his script with scenes just as inexplicable as this one, in which characters will talk in a way that neither informs the plot nor reveals anything about the character. If Bauer was aiming for sophistication, he settled for sophistry. Bauer has so little to say, in fact, that one of his characters doesn't speak. She's not mute, she just apparently chooses not to. The most direct character is Mrs. Stumpf (Elizabeth Bove), who makes it clear that she doesn't approve of Debra's extracurricular affairs with her husband, but then again, Mrs. Stumpf also spends an entire scene second-guessing Raoul. Although she has no reason for doing so, save for playing the cranky old lady card, to her credit, we learn so little about Raoul that her initiative at least seems merited.

If Playing Cricket is in any way original, it is only because--like the big dissertation on a ninth-century sequel to Beowulf that Cricket convinces Mr. Fergeson to write--there is nothing worth plagiarizing in it. As for the acting, it's quite telling that the last-minute replacement to the cast, Mr. Guttman (who was understandably on book) was the finest part of it. The show earns a summa cum laude, but it's for failing--out of an online university.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Clybourne Park

I don't normally write about shows this early in previews, but since I loved it and didn't get a press ticket for it, I thought it worthwhile to bring Bruce Norris's new play, Clybourne Park, to your attention. In a cleverly linked pair of one-acts, one in 1959 and one in 2009, Norris wittily examines the nature of "community," particularly as it relates to class. It's far more complex than that--so much so that it's not until the last ten minutes of each play, and the terrifically diverse performances of Jeremy Shamos, that race even comes into focus. Also embedded in the script is the tale of a soldier--the ultimate stranger--and his sad suicide. Furthermore, Norris neatly shows the dangers of hyper-politeness, both of the past and present, in which our way of respectfully stepping around what we really mean is ultimately more offensive and harmful than simply coming right out and saying it. The ensemble is terrific, particularly Christina Kirk's 1959 fluttery housewife and Annie Parisse's excitable 2009 "post-racial" liberal, and it's the best work Pam MacKinnon's done as a director: high-paced naturalism suits her.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

metaDRAMA: Butts in Seats

59E59 is the most inconsistent theaters in New York City, a hotbox for theater festivals that almost always has three shows playing at once. This is actually a complement--they're putting on so much of what's new in this city--downtown stuff in at an uptown (and upscale, at least from an architectural standpoint) venue--that it's only natural they should have both hits and misses. The important thing is that they're constantly generating new work--and more importantly--generating new audiences. Although you can subscribe the old-fashioned way to the resident company at 59E59 (Primary Stages), you can also subscribe to the theater itself, which makes the already reasonable tickets 30% cheaper. (And even cheaper for students; ah, I miss those days.)

This isn't me shilling for the theater--I've panned as much there as I've praised--but rather a way of pointing out another new initiative (much like Women's Project's email-generating "free ticket" offers). Tomorrow, 59E59 is celebrating their sixth birthday--and pushing that recognizable "59E59" brand a little more--by giving away 59 $59.59 memberships, naturally to the first 59 people who visit their box office/theater at 59 East 59th Street. Their office is open between 12:30 and 5:00 tomorrow, and as a fan of the old, non-lottery way of getting rush tickets, I wish you all the best of luck.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

What to See: February

The Debate Society's You're Welcome; info here.
2/5 @ 8:00

Catherine Filloux's Dog and Wolf; info here.
2/7 @ 3:30

Theater for a New Audience's Measure for Measure; info here.
2/9 @ 8:00

Patrick Link and Sharyn Rothstein's Prescription Strength Theater; info here.
2/23 @ 8:00

Jon Maran's The Temperamentals; info here.
2/26 @ 8:00

Monday, February 01, 2010

A Brief History of Murder: Victims

There are a great deal of talented people involved in the Sneaky Snake Productions. There are also--joyously--a lot of nerds, who revel in making niche shows, like last year's riotous Adventure Quest, a spot-on send-up of classic text-based PC games. But Richard Lovejoy bites off way too much in his bloody latest, A Brief History of Murder, a David Lynch-does-Ragnarok "comedy," which misses the best of both those worlds. Understanding Ragnarok requires a few courses in Norse mythology, and understanding Lynch--if that's possible--requires the ability to watch, rewatch, and follow frame-by-frame. A Brief History of Murder tries, splitting itself up into two stand-alone yet supposedly complementary parts ("Victims" and "Detectives," of which I saw the former), and its program is filled with the lore of Sentinel, Oklahoma (where the show takes place), but all this makes the play more work than pleasure. It's too epic for the stage--and that's assuming it's even any good. (In this medium, it is most certainly not.)

Over almost two hours, Victims attempts to follow twenty characters, and even though many of them die quickly (and terrifically, thanks to Laura Moss's gory effects), that doesn't make us care for the survivors any more. (And it certainly doesn't make us feel bad for the deceased.) The most charismatic of the actors draw our interest, like Darlene Violette's portrayal of the unapologetically racist baker Holly Castle, but no matter how much you multiply a zero-sum role, it still leaves you with nothing. Timothy McCown Reynolds makes a creepy Fenrus, sniffing everyone and acting all mysterious, but though you might believe him, you don't believe in what he's doing. Other characters, like the two Blues, Jean and Gene (Shelia Joon and Salvatore Brienik) demonstrate what happens when the actors fail to sufficiently inflate a role, and David Arthur Bachrach--the batshit demonic mayor--shows how to go too far, though that's more the fault of the director, Ivanna Cullinan.

One of the many throwaway lines in Victims goes something like this: "You know who's a hack? Stephen King. And Faulkner. Fuck those guys." I can understand Lovejoy shitting on the highbrow, but it makes little sense to denigrate King--even his worst TV movies made about as much sense as this production. And considering all the sex-crazed corpses, bloody victims, and puke-spewing rookies, there are worse people to pay homage to than King. (A similar company, Nosedive Productions, has done just that. Vampire Cowboys Theater regularly does high-octane genre work without losing the narrative.) There are some good moments in A Brief History of Murder, but when plots are abandoned as quickly as they're started, you can only recognize them in retrospect, when there's the risk that they're only comparatively good. For instance, there's a terrifically awkward scene between photographer Richard Summers (Kent Meister) and his lone-gunman subject, Roland (Adam Swiderski), as they swap secrets. But is it only good given how bad Meister's eventual breakdown on a phone-sex hotline, or because it's the only scene in which Swiderski isn't just posturing as a tough Russian?

More is not always merrier, and given how good Lovejoy can be when he's pared down to a specific mood, story, and rhythm, one hopes that the next Sneaky Snake production is, in fact, a bit more brief.