Thursday, May 31, 2007

PLAY: "Wonderland: One-Act Festival"

Wonderland is like one of those traveling carnivals: it's disorganized, it's creaky--the presentation is small in scale and low in budget--BUT . . . it's a thrilling chance to get outside the everyday. The very lack of polish is enticing, and the whole project is an opportunity to catch some new stars in an American Idol-like competition, where judges and audiences determine which of the sixty shows in the "Roller Coaster" round make it through to the twenty-show "Ferris Wheel," from there to the ten-show "Merry-Go-Round" and then the final, three-show "Free Fall."

I can only speak to the events of May 29th's "8:00" performance (delayed until 9:00), but the wait was certainly worth it. Like amusement parks themselves, the wait sometimes has to be worth it, and the mingling crowds of directors, actors, stagehands, and audiences made for some interesting pre-show fun. I also have to admit knowing one of the directors, Whitney Aronson, a classmate of mine in college. But set that aside: I write without bias and the four miniature plays were all entertaining in their own ways, each with a wide range of style.

For instance, Aronson's opening number, The Piazza (which has moved on to the "Ferris Wheel"), was a highly linguistic comedy by Laura Emack that revolved around a man's overblown descriptions and fantasies for his home. Whereas the other three shows all took place in a single scene, this one was filled with transitions (hindered slightly by a paucity of technical rehearsals) but the ambition of the lighting (a visit to a neighbor uses a single overhead light to project a flickering dankness) shone through.

In an entirely different vein was Like Batman (another "Ferris Wheel" contender), a show written and directed (and starring, due to sickness) Bennett Windheim. Structured like a short story, the play opened with the parents addressing the audience directly, to explain how their son had fallen from the roof, but then opens up into a more dramatic lead-up to the fall. Windheim's use of contrast between the poetic description of a plummeting cape and the everyday language of a domestic dispute served him well, but the viewpoints of two neighbors (a Jew and an Italian) ratcheted up the cliche a little too much.

The third show, Eulogy, was the weakest of the bunch: written, directed, and starring Alexis DeLaRosa, the work seemed very personal and, as a result, leaked energy all over the place. But even given the wild gesticulations, the accentuated stomping, and the repetitive blocking, the show had charm, especially with lines like "There are no superheroes--there's just one big supervillain, and that's time."

Of course, if it's lines you want, the dissing contest of Arthur Alleyne's In A Min had the audience cracking up as Jared Robinson and Hannah Davis went way over the top with some of the funniest, dirtiest laughs around. Some of the lines were certainly derivative ("Yeah, most people think I'm gay. [beat] Until I fuck 'em.") and others were straight off the street ("He's pissing sitting down he's so whipped") but the acting sustained the energy, as did Aronson's direction, which made a nice running gag out of an otherwise strained bowel movement.

I'll be heading back to see what makes it to the "Free Fall" round, but the best of the rest will be up before then (6/5 through 6/7) and your vote might help crown a winner. Just because the presentation's hokey doesn't mean the thrills aren't there; see what off-off-Broadway's brewing.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

FILM: "Chalk"

Pop those books back open; it's time to go back to school, a place where time is recorded by the weeks, days, minutes, and seconds to the next holiday. Chalk has none of the dry, cough-inducing dangers of its subject: instead, Mike Akel's docucomedy is a nice, intentionally awkward look at how teachers cope with schools and why so many of them quit within the first three years. It's as serious a look as it is a funny one, and despite being scripted, it serves as a good launchpad for Morgan Spurlock Presents, an initiative to produce films with "social relevance."

The film grounds itself in four characters (rounded out by a brilliant ensemble of teachers and students): three teachers at different phases of their careers and a former teacher turned assistant principal. As the first-year newcomer, Mr. Lowrey (Troy Schremmer) is a mess, as much unable to manage himself as his class. He's the total opposite, in fact, from the third-year challenger for Teacher of the Year, the energetic and charismatic Mr. Stroope (Chris Mass). And it's quite another story with the overly competent and pushy second-year gym teacher, Coach Webb (Janelle Schremmer), who is so in control that she can't get a date. The different perspectives are competently handled, but because each character has such unique struggles, its sometimes hard to remember they're in the same school.

Then again, there's only so much a director can reveal in ninety minutes. Akel's best is drawn from short scenes with Mrs. Reddell (Shannon Haragan) that show her panicked attempts to stop fights, find students, deal with parents, and--worse yet--quell teacher complaints. The best moment of the film shows her covering for a late substitute teacher, glowing with the joy of being around students who want to learn.

The film isn't all roses, but it also lacks thorns. Mr. Lowrey is used as a punching bag, but Chalk is a comedy, and his nightmare class lacks the rough edges or violence of a more urban public school. However, it does give Akel the element of surprise: Lowrey's one explosive argument with a student is affecting, whereas Stroope's breakdown smells like melodrama. It's fine to use Teacher of the Year debates to illustrate another aspect of school, but it comes across as a political parable, and it doesn't seem as important as what Lowrey, Webb, and Reddell are going through. The delicate frisson of the classroom just isn't there, nor is the originality of events like the "Spelling Hornet," a slang spelling bee that teachers participate in for the students' entertainment. Instead of being played for laughs, Stroope would be better as a catalyst for big "behind-the-scenes" numbers--a faculty meeting, the teacher's lounge, happy hour--where his personality can get the ensemble loosened up and talking about their never-ending days.

Chalk is done very well, breaking into a genre that Christopher Guest has dominated for the last several years. It rings with truth and is very rarely smarmy: the only scene that calls for an immediate erasure is a dream sequence that is out of place cinematically, dramatically, and thematically. But that's Akel's homework: your do-now exercise should be to grab a bookbag (you can stuff it with snacks) and get down to the theater to watch Chalk. It's not just for blackboards anymore.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

PLAY: "The Eaten Heart"

The Eaten Heart, a flawless work of theater performed by The Debate Society, takes place in the Motel "Decameron," a modern version of Boccaccio's epic collection of bawdy allegory. Here, the action takes place in a series of three parallel motel rooms (only the central one is fully exposed), and presents only glimpses of a wide range of characters. But those glimpses, handled by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, are so nuanced (and yet so subtle) that the entire evening is rich with the effect of many lives fully lived. Bos can go from being a raging temptress to a coy loner or a panic-struck singer, often in the same breath. Thureen, a perfect match, turns awkward into quietly sadistic and feeble into gleefully daft, as much satyr as saturnine.

The show only runs an hour, but that time gives us everything from a magician's panic-stricken collapse to a married woman's brief and childlike encounter with the pizza-delivery guy. The absurd is refined by the unsettling jocularity of a man who thinks the voodoo underwear he's wearing makes him invisible; the grotesque is present in a potted plant with some very special soil; the humanity in the brief connection between a pot-smoking sexpot and a mute repairman.

Impressive as these lives in miniature are, the technical precision of this show is what sets it apart. Director Oliver Butler's inventive ability prevails across the entire show, along with that of Amanda Rehbein's conjoined motel rooms, Mike Riggs' thunderstorm-creating lighting design, Sydney Maresca's thousand-and-one costumes, and Nathan Leigh's illusion-creating ("slight-of-ear") sound effects. Along with the outstanding cast, the show continually defies our expectations of the space, and is then able to suckerpunch us by defying our expectations of the characters.

By the time the show ended, I had by no means had my fill of The Eaten Heart: every segment was fresh and filled with theatrical magic. From the expert use of silence to the genius of overlapping two disparate strangers from different times in the same room at the same time, Butler has already found the way to transmute the mundane into the seductive. Such theatrical alchemy has turned The Eaten Heart to gold; indulge it now while you still can.

PLAY: "Lipstick on a Pig"

The big problem with Linda Evans' vague drama Lipstick on a Pig is that it seems so old, from the recycled ideas to the sluggish pace of the plot and the frequent gaps between lines. However, I can't even use the obvious old saying about putting lipstick on a pig to explain where the show goes wrong, because David Epstein's direction does nothing to dress up this play (certainly not the work he did for Coronado): it is what it is, and there's never any confusion about that. Instead, it's just four actors speaking through a stifling silence, set against a bland wall or in a blander hospital bed, and with a randomly rising and ebbing flow to the lighting that is both soporific and out of place.

For all that's wrong with it, the central concept has a lot of promise: an ailing and estranging father winds up with only two family members willing to donate their kidney to him. His daughter, Eaton (pronounced "Eden") is there out of obligation, but also to find an explanation for the childhood cruelties, and his brother, AJ, is there to pay back an unspoken debt -- or perhaps to incur a new one with Eaton. Dennis Hearn, who plays AJ, is a believable sot, the drunken loner who manages to be creepy and charming at the same time. But his interactions between brother (John Farrell) and niece (Christa Kimlicko Jones) are always shadowed by a bit of pretension, and though the family isn't close, it isn't until late in the second act that they seem like anything but strangers.

In two acts, the play is stretched and the interstitial moments are filled with exposition, a lot of which is provided by the unnecessary fourth character, Whitney (Alexis Croucher), who is the nurse in charge of the transplants. The bedside drama becomes unfocused every time she enters, and there's an air of artificiality about her whole role in the procedure. Lipstick on a Pig starts off knowing what story it wants to tell, but never follows through on the drama we'd expect (is AJ actually Eaton's father?) and ultimately dissembles into a shallow pool of melodramatic moments.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

PLAY: "The Chronological Secrets of Tim"

The Chronological Secrets of Tim is an energetic melodrama about relationships, but it's not wild enough to titillate, and it doesn't answer enough questions to entertain. The show is one lengthy tease, and the final product makes one a bit blue, so to speak. The writing is intentionally comic, mixed with heavy splashes of roundabout MTV-like chatter, but like Tim himself, the farce just needs to try harder to account for itself. How do you account for a show running long enough to merit an intermission when it's built around a man sitting on a ledge, threatening to jump? How does that premise last two hours? Granted, the rookie negotiator proves that we're not grounded in reality, and that's cemented by Tim's ex-girlfriend Alexandra showing up, and more so when Tim's latest ex-girlfriend Amanda arrives. Not that either of them pulls him down from the ledge, or that either of them really has a reason for being there. They're as much plot devices as they are chances for playwright Janet Zarecor to belittle the self-centered, cheating, egotistical Tim. (Why his parents think he's gay remains a mystery, just like the mysterious journal entry whose threatened revealing is the climax of Act I.)

Sarah Ali does a nice job of focusing our attention on the wings for the chronological flashbacks that occur whenever one of the girls reads from Tim's sexcapade of a journal, and she manages to evoke setting and character with a bare minimum of props. All the actors do a fine job of switching mood between past and present, but it's telling that the show only seems to be alive when it's in the short, segmented realm of the past. There, the narrative has clear actions (or at least a clear punchline); in the present, the single action is stretched beyond plausibility and far too much into monotony. When things are shaken up in the second act, they're not only inconsistent with the limited character and need of the first act, but they don't even pay off.

The Impetuous Theater Group produced The Chronological Secrets of Tim, and it's a good name for their company, as this effort comes across as eager and headlong. (Even the advertising seems rash: why the name Tim is spelled with the lightning-bolt of Harry Potter will forever remain a mystery.) The actors make the most of it, particularly Liz Bangs, who plays all the miscellaneous hook-ups of yore, but after an hour, it's no longer as much fun to watch themselves futilely throw themselves at the script. At that point, we're watching for someone to throw themselves out the window.

Monday, May 21, 2007

PLAY: "Peasant"

Susan Ferrara's one-woman show, Peasant, looks like what it is--a workshop presentation--but it sounds so good, that I can't wait for her to flesh it out a little more. The issue with Peasant is that it's dramatically poor, so Ferrara is forced to mine her various characters for personality over substance. She plays up the comedy and theatricality of morphing from one character to another, and boils entire characters down to their sweet mannerisms, as with her childish description of Dracula: "I like Dracula because. I like Dracula because. He's very tall. And he wears black. And a cape. And he can fly. And. I like Dracula."

The most substantial character is her grandmother, Assunta, who (with sisters Rosalia and Lucia) makes the trip from Italy to America during the first World War. In the present, Assunta is a charmingly persistent matriarch who scolds and clucks her way around the stage; in the past, she delivers a grievous and poetic litany: "War took everything. Even the color green. Nothing but brown in San Marco. Southern Italy. Just dirt and rock. You think God forget color." After they reach Virginia, things get even harsher. Susan's grandfather, Francesco, works in the mines until he becomes a version of Dracula himself (or Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man): "Day and night he work for years. Buried in dose mines. Til his skin was as smooth an' white as da coal was dark. You could see the blood move thru him. You could see his heart beat. Almost invisible, buried for years."

The title of the play comes from the ID badge pinned to the sisters upon arriving at Ellis Island ("Peasant"), and in its finest moments, the show is a warm reminder of our jumbled, collective pasts. The tried-and-true plot brings them from the Statue of Liberty to a sewing factory to a cramped tenement home, and it even throws in dramatic staples like a dead child. But the first-person narrative, the charm of Ferrara's telling, is what sells the story. With more work and a few props to take the burden off the strained scenes, Peasant will be very compelling. For now, you get the chance to see a raw story that's ambling, at a clipped pace, toward a deep meaning about where we all come from, and what we do when we get there.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Word of Mouth Festival

I really wish I hadn't been sick all weekend long, as I'd have loved to spread word about this great site-specific festival sooner, but although it's gone, you should at least know that the World Financial Center occasionally puts up some great projects. The two that I attended were Bird Eye Blue Print and Girls Just Wanna Have Fund$.

Those who follow my writing understand that I have something of a crush on Lisa D'Amour's work, especially when she's working with director Katie Pearl. But I'll be objective when I say that Bird Eye Blue Print was a thrill. I promised not to review it so that I could attend as a guest, but the combination of eccentric tour-guides, a mysterious (and abandoned) office to explore, and the total freedom of the whole evening was fantastic. We were all told that there was one door that was never opened; as all the guests were leaving and given free reign of the facility, I felt like Charlie in the chocolate factory and I couldn't resist in peeking into that unseen room. Such unabashed thrills are almost criminal, but I've no regrets.

Girls Just Wanna Have Fund$, the Women's Project's anthology of five small moralistic plays, was also a blast. An overarching story about a missing "dime" sends a tour group from one end of the World Financial Center to the other, giving each play the opportunity to use the space in a different fashion. "The Dime Show" was silent vaudeville along a long corridor whereas "A Peddler's Tale: Buttons, Guts and Bluetooth" had the audience watching the action revolve from the first floor all the way up to our perch on the second. "Remembrance," my personal favorite, featured two young African-American women chasing each other up and down a single set of escalators. One was ghetto, the other successful: what stood out was how at the end of the play, they switched costumes and repeated the performance. How's that for a statement on status? Most amusing of all were the reactions of innocent bystanders (there's no such thing!), though I was saddened by how busy they all appeared to be: only one person actually stopped to watch one of the performances.

Site-specific, environmental theater. New York lends itself to such tourist-friendly activities, and it's my hope that the lower cost of doing outdoors or guerrilla work will help contribute toward getting some outstanding new works produced new year in this medium.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

PLAY: "The Secret War"

I won't pretend that I understood the zodiac-driven narrative of The Secret War, nor will I claim to have kept track of all the religious references to Zoroastrianism, its sub-sect Mazdaism, or even the various gods that keep popping up. What I will say is this: Darius Safavi's play is sloppy only because it's overflowing with interesting ideas. Nowhere else will you hear a religious chant segue into a modern dance and then into a freestyle rap. Nowhere else will you get such a sense of the perverse in the good and the holy in the bad, and nowhere else will you find such pleasure in being told to "prepare to suck on Satan's spiked cock" while "sucking on [his] acidic tit."

Episode 1, currently playing at the Milagro Theater through May 20th has its closest parallel in what The Best does, only Darius's eclecticism leans less toward multimedia/rock and more toward a riff on all the world's cultures at once. He does it with humor, sex appeal, Techronomicon-invented riffs, and some profoundly creative language ("Let the air-conditioned stars swallow the souls of prophets!"). Right now, The Secret War is an odd, underground thrill-ride, complete with musical guests after every show. But if Darius manages not to leak so much of his energy in needless experimentation (after exhausting so much here, he should have an idea for what works and what doesn't), The Secret War might just take off.

Monday, May 14, 2007

FILM/PLAY: "Brand Upon The Brain!"

For die-hard New York theatergoers, the Foley artist is nothing new. But these days, it's a once-in-a-lifetime thrill to see them dressed up in their lab coats performing live sound effects for Guy Maddin's touring film, Brand Upon The Brain!. The film will live on with a recorded version featuring Isabella Rossellini as the interlocutor, and the effects and score by Jason Staczek will all be there: but the chance to see it all assembled on stage is a real treat, and a true theatrical experience. Surround sound has nothing on natural acoustics, and Maddin's heavily stylized combination of expressionism and impressionism (fast jump cuts, pinhole shots, unsteadily assembled photo-montages and shots) is best served as exhibitionism.

The May 13th performance I attended featured poet laureate John Ashbury as the narrator; a perfect match, considering the poetic nature not only of the silent text on camera, but also the "dubbed" text he was required to read. The film is poetic too, a self-described "photo-play" that uses images the way others might use words. Here a picture isn't worth a thousand words, but there are more than a thousand pictures to serve as metaphorical subtext, lively presence, or a Grand Guignol of atmosphere.

Brand Upon The Brain! is a charming horror story that makes memory into a monster, and is billed as a "remembrance in 12 parts." The first and final chapters feature Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs), and could serve as a lush autobiography on Black Notch Island, and its lighthouse orphanage, if it weren't for the Maddin's tyrannical witch of a mother or mad scientist father, the two of whom are slowly harvesting "nectar" from the orphan's brains.

This fanciful bit of Gothic adventure is kept in check by the more realistic emotions it brings into conflict: young Guy (Sullivan Brown) has to face down his mother (Gretchen Krich), Guy's sister, Sis, has to face her father (Todd Jefferson Moore) and both have to come to terms with their raging hormones, represented by the Hale twins, Wendy and Chance (Katherine E. Scharhon). As self-branded detectives, they set out to expose the inner workings of the orphanage, and also to understand their own inner workings, and Maddin's comically bleak tone allows for a lot of clever devices (like the "undressing gloves" or the foghorn voice of their father). Also, while there's a limited amount of text, both on the title-cards and from the interlocutor, it is often used to emphasize certain points: "Dinner. Grim as usual," or "Dirt is bad." Though the film seems to lose narrative control (and with it, its riveting focus) in the final chapters, the chaos is so well matched by the orchestra, Ensemble Sospeso, that even the dissonance wins us over.

A word of advice: watching Brand Upon The Brain! will leave a mark upon your brain, and may make it difficult for you to go back to watching movies normally again; not just because Guy Maddin's cinematography is so distinct and engaging, but because, in the end, there's nothing more appealing than experiencing something live. This here's the best of two worlds.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

PLAY: "Blackbird"

Although Blackbird is an ambiguous title, the playwright's name--David Harrower--manages to perfectly pronounce the tone of the piece. Like other famous Davids (Mamet comes to mind), he has created a terse, harrowing, 90-minute showdown between an office manager and the 27-year-old girl he had "illegal relations" with when she was twelve. Not going the easy route, he makes Ray (Jeff Daniels) the victim. The moment we meet him, he stands in a self-defeated slouch; when he speaks, it is with a choking sound, as if his mouth were clenched into a fist. Meanwhile, Una (Alison Pill), is the cat-like tormentor, languorously mocking Ray from a plastic chair, curling and uncurling both her body and her accusations in sudden rushes of text. She plays him like a ball of string, batting him around with the truth and staring him down with piercing, innocent eyes--like those of a child--and an adult, almost Cheshire-like grin.

Harrower's script gives them both ample opportunity to play. Una isn't really there for closure, and Ray's conception of pedophilia defies expectations: "I was never one of them," he claims. There's a bleak humor in realizing that Ray means it: he admits that his trial would have gone better if he had been abused as a child, and that if he had managed to return to her bedside, he would have looked even guiltier (he flight at least makes it seem as if he recognized his guilt).
As my theatergoing friend pointed out, this is akin to the justifications (and tone) of Martin in Edward Albee's The Goat. But whereas Albee was writing a satirical tragedy with heavy doses of melodrama to lighten the blows, Harrower is more interested in the uncomfortably bleak question of whether or not love can ever be wrong.

Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill are both extremely talented performers her, and their nuances are what make that question so hard to answer. Una acts a little neurotic, but if she really is traumatized, then perhaps love is a trauma. Ray, although at first angrily dismissive, is a man still on the edge, simply trying to protect what little dignity he's been left with after prison. The two are fragile, and the play's strongest, most settling moment, is a post-coital remembrance:

"Did I cum?" she asks, with the subtext of lingering trauma. Him, in ragged response: "I thought you did. Yes." "How could you tell?" she says, so much like a child that it's painful. "Your face was flushed. You kept your eyes shut a long time."
The sentences are short and natural, as is the style of the entire play. While it's easier to believe she was a shameless girl with a crush, stupid enough to start, and that he was a lonely man too stupid to stop her, Harrower takes a more critical approach. When Ray says, "You weren't like other children.... You knew more about love than I did, than she did," we believe him. Harrower also manages to conflate two issues: after Una is found, the detectives all but rape her (cleaning her out) to get their evidence: "They asked me what you'd done to me and then told me what you'd done to me when I wouldn't." It's not an easy (or pretty) task, but it's staggeringly effective.

The only place where Blackbird has its dark wings clipped is in Joe Mantello's lighting choice. After going through so much effort to construct a realistic office on stage (kudos to Scott Pask), and then to focus the action within a single, prison-like conference room, it doesn't make sense to change the natural direction for the two lengthy monologues each character gets. Granted, it isn't easy to find things for the other character to do while they're being lectured, but that's the director's job. The harsh, soft lights of the office (Paul Gallo's design) are enough: the theatrics of dimming them comes across as cheap and distracting.

Blackbird is a show well-worth seeing, capable of casting some doubts on what is otherwise a morally unambiguous issue. For all that the dialogue is naturally awkward, full of false starts and stops, it's at the same time technically crisp and precise, rehearsed just enough to feel fresh and not at all sloppy. Whether or not you agree with Harrower's stark appraisal of love, Blackbird is an important piece for Manhattan Theater Club, no Doubt about it.

PLAY: An Octopus Love Story

Photo/Mike Klar

Delaney Britt Brewer's new play, An Octopus Love Story, is like the difference between good sushi and bad. The good moments--which far outnumber the bad--are filled with witty characters and comic situations (the guy who hits on his co-worker only to find out she's a lesbian), and great new descriptions for depression: "This city is so sharp, sometimes I feel like I'm slashing my wrists just to hail a cab." The bad moments are just a result of straining the suction cups of the story until they cannot help but slip up. The titular anecdote about a lovestruck octopus is charming, but makes the play too much of an anti-Little Mermaid, just like Brian Sidney Bembridge's fish-tank of a set, which might work if it weren't sunk in metaphor (there's also the "people who live in glass houses" parable). On their own, the text and scenes are fine, albeit a little melodramatic, and the cast goes a long way toward keeping the focus on Brewer's language, rather than her metaphor.

After an excisable although enjoyable opening scene that introduces us to the closeted lesbian, Jane (to the chagrin of her co-worker, Marc [Eric Kuehnemann]), the play gets to the point as Tosh, Jane's live-in lover (and publicist) convinces her to marry Danny (Josh Tyson), a gay man, as a way of protesting marriage. What's interesting here, and where that fishy metaphor comes back to haunt us, is that Jane and Danny actually fall in love: Jane, as likable as she is neurotic, and Danny, a sweet, charming, Rock Hudson-quoting gentleman. Brewer gives us both sides of the story first when Mr. Gardner (a perfectly unsettling Andrew Dawson) shows up to interview them for what he calls a "mom and pop" magazine, but which is actually a subversive right-wing attack on their campaign, and then later when Danny's best friend, Alex (Michael Cyril Creighton) tries to win him back. So can you change who you are? Should you? Are we even what we say we are, think we are, actually are?

It's fitting that the scene changes are accompanied by light lounge music, because that's more or less how these questions are addressed--lightly. It's also why the plot slips further and further as the play continues. It isn't necessary for Tosh to have an affair to make Danny and Jane connect: they're already getting married. It does, however, make for a tearful bit of karaoke courtesy of Sir Elton John. It's obvious that Alex loves Danny from the subtler first act: the long monologue about a long-past bicycling accident just lets Creighton play a drunk. The one subplot that works is Jane's confession to her mother-in-law, Kathy, that she is lesbian, and it's a moment carried entirely by Krista Sutton, who makes more out Kathy than just a kooky Texan.

An Octopus Love Story may not be raw enough to make for good sushi: some of the characters are too thinly cut to seem attached, and the disconnected set and over-garnished subplots hold the show back. But the texture of a good play about gender identity--and more importantly, the taste of a rising playwright still establishing her style--makes this show worth sampling.

Friday, May 11, 2007

BOOK: "Christine Falls," by Benjamin Black (a k a John Banville)

I was a fan of John Banville's Man Booker Prize-winning book, The Sea, but for all its wondrous description, it was a little too solitary and introspective of a read. Banville's new book takes on a new pen name, that of Benjamin Black, and a new genre, although not really a new style. Just as Cormac McCarthy is a master of pared-down refinements of genres, and Paul Auster brings a sense of mysterious and metafictional coincidence to all his novels, Banville's latest, Christine Falls, is a bulked-up crime novel, with the same wistful yet playful tone of his other tales.

When I say bulked up, I do not mean that Christine Falls is a hulking read: it's actually a slender three-hundred-odd pages. But those pages are pure muscle, full of sinewed lines, insinuating plots, and sinuous ideas (not to mention pure old infallible sin). The text is filled with the classic and contradictory phrases of those who see the double-sided truth of a man who is "menacingly jovial," but the metaphors are stronger ("The baby was trying out a few exploratory squeaks that sounded ... like the sounds a blind man would make feeling at something shiny with his fingertips...") and the absence of libido in the protagonist, Quirke, keeps the novel from being distracted from deeper significance by shallow pleasures.

Actually, for the first sixty or so pages, Christine Falls is more of a family drama than a mystery. Quirke, being a mortician, is used to being around dead bodies, and the only reason he pursues the titular corpse is because he catches his estranged half-brother, Malachy Griffin, tampering with the records. This hook is the perfect excuse for Banville to explore Quirke's tenuous relationship with Mal, not to mention Mal's wife, Sarah, with whom he is still in love. To make things more intriguing, Quirke turns out to have been married to Sarah's sister, Delia, who died in a failed childbirth that turned him into a charming drunkard. As if that wasn't enough drama, Sarah has a daughter, Phoebe, who is just old enough to be sexually rebellious (the novel takes place in Ireland, in the 50s, which makes her around 20 years old), and some of Banville's best moments are playing the loose Phoebe against the malleable Quirke.

However, while the mystery serves Banville's writing -- forcing it out into the open and propelling it onward -- the actual plot is weak. The second part of the book introduces two new characters, half a world away in Boston. Claire is a sweetheart, and Andy is a hard, philandering drunk, and the two are stereotypes that, while fleshed out, lack any charm or conviction. It's simply another way for Banville to avoid dealing with the shallow mystery, as he explores the traditional "marriage in trouble."

The effect is more thrilling than the mystery, and at times, the characters. The third-person narration, when focused on Quirke, is excellent, and his scenes are handled with an efficient, economic grace (even as they cram a ton of references between moments):
Barney told the barman to leave the bottle. He said "I'd rather a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy," and gave Quirke a quick, shy, sideways glance; by now all Barney's jokes were secondhand. The thought came to Quirke: He's Falstaff grown inconvenient, which did not, he knew make himself the king. He ordered what was called a coffee: hot water and a dollop of tarry syrup from a square bottle: Irel, the Irish Coffee! He stirred into the brew three heaping spoonfuls of sugar. What am I doing here? he asked himself, and Barney, as if he had read his mind, turned on him a quizzical eye and said, in his Donnybrook voice: "Bit out of your depth here, aren't you, Quirke?"
However, at other moments, it seems as if Banville's made a choice to write in a particularly "peculiar awkwardness," that gives life to sentences like "It was not the dead that seemed to Quirke uncanny but the living." Commas aren't always indulged, and because Banville is the sort of writer who makes his readers work (unlike the traditional pulp of this genre), some of the descriptions yield their treasures only after a few reads.
Outside, the already darkening afternoon was dense with frost smoke, and the ornamental gardens were hidden under snow and the ocean was a leaden line in front of a bank of lavender-tinted fog. Now and then a pane-sized square of snow would slide from the roof and burst into powder and cascade in an eerie silence down the glass wall and disappear into the drifts that had already built up at the edges of the lawn, white into white.
There are no detectives featured in this story--the characters are victims enough of their circumstances: missed romantic opportunities, failing marriages, old battles with alcoholism. There hardly needs to be an actual Christine Falls to deal with, and this becomes clear in the swift third act, an anticlimactic slice of life that is effective only because of how unusual it is to find in this breed of book. If you're simply seeking mindless escapism with a procedural ending, this isn't the novel for you. But if you're looking to explore the possibilities of a hybrid between genre and literature, look no further than passages like the following, which use the morbid fascination of the former's type of prose to delve into the soul-seeking truth of the latter's.
It sometimes seemed to [Quirke] that he favored dead bodies over living ones. Yes, he harbored a sort of admiration for cadavers, these wax-skinned, soft, suddenly ceased machines. They were perfected in their way, no matter how damaged or decayed, and fully as impressive as any ancient marble. He suspected, too, that he was becoming more and more like them, that he was even in some way becoming one of them. He would stare at his hands and they would seem to have the same texture, inert, malleable, porous, as the corpses that he worked on, as if something of their substance were seeping into him by slow but steady degrees. Yes, he was fascinated by the mute mysteriousness of the dead. Each corpse carried its unique secret--the precise cause of death--a secret that it was his task to uncover. For him, the spark of death was fully as vital as the spark of life.
For me, the two halves of this novel are the yin and yang of modern fiction, and even the bold failures in this novel are fully vital toward the advancement of writing in general: it's a spark of life, at last, in a repetitious genre.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

PLAY: "God's Ear"

Language is all the spectacle we need. English's forced protestations, easy convolutions, logical revolutions, and verbal tantalizations are full-throttle in Jenny Schwartz's comic drama, God's Ear. New Georges has done well in the past at tapping artists who are fully utilizing rhythm to tell a story (past productions include Sheila Callaghan's excellent Dead City, and Lisa D'Amour's Anna Bella Eema), and Schwartz is a perfect match for them. The fast-paced repetition of David Ives' Sure Thing colliding with the linguistic sparring of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead makes for the surface; her own lively imagination (both the Tooth Fairy and G.I. Joe are interlocutors in this production) is what lends the text its groove and its edge.

But there is more to to this cavalcade of language than simple logorrhea. Mel begins the play trying to explain the difference between "critical" and "crucial" to her husband, Ted, in regards to the health of their son, Sam. In short gasps of muted suffering, Mel can only dance around the words, and Ted, grief-stricken, makes for a willing participant as he slowly distances himself from the wife he cannot come to terms with. While Mel remains at home, caring for their six-year-old daughter Lanie, Ted flees to the nameless Lenoras of airport lounges or the aptly generic Guys who frequent sports bars and sing songs about what can't be sold on eBay. These characters share a surreal sincerity brought to life by Schwartz's quirky and repetitious humor, and God's Ear is entertaining because of the truth clinging to the fascinatingly facile jokes.

As the play progresses, the words become like music, and not just in the interstitial songs. The staccato desperation, the pleading falsetto, the unexpectedly shrill shrieks, these notes strum directly on the heartstrings. The fabulous cast are virtuosos of their own voices, but they also command equally fine performances from their partners, and I expect that Anne Kauffman's masterful direction brought a lot of cohesion to this difficult script. Kris Stone's whimsical set, a combination of pop-up book and Rubik's cube (all trap-doors and compartments), adds a grounding for the type of world where Schwartz's language runs free, and the fantasy costumes of GI Joe and The Tooth Fairy excuse the unmistakable clash between God's mind and God's ear.

There are segments of God's Ear that could do with a little paring, and Schwartz could be a little less obfuscating when it comes to the tragedy beneath the tumultuous text. But there's nothing wrong with a play that demands our attention as much as our sympathy, and the forceful contrivance of language here does more to liven the stage than anything Disney can throw at us. In the end, we are what we say we are, the products of our own stories, and the tight, powerful narrative, tangled as it may be, is one hell of a dramatic web.

Monday, May 07, 2007

PLAY: "The Receipt"

The Receipt, a quirky two-man (and a Moog) show about the gaping maw of urban life, is the perfect show for the 2007 Brits Off Broadway series running at 59E59. Not only is Will Adamsdale and Chris Branch's show a well-crafted comic narrative, but it's as applicable to New York as it is to the "unnamed" city they are "archeologizing" (cough, cough, "Glondon"). Commentaries about oddly named utilities like the Oyster (a tube pass) are the furthest this show gets from New York life, and there's plenty of Blackberries and Apples to balance the ludicrously commercial field (throw in a nearby Bloomingdale's self-aware "medium brown bag").

Adamsdale, doubling between a short-tempered narrator and the two protagonists of the show (a man, Wiley, and a woman, T.), is the energy of the show, and Branch, who plays all the other characters and serves as an electronic Foley artist on his synthesizer, is both a perfect anchor to the show (sedentary as is he is behind the keyboard) and partner to Adamsdale. At worst, the play gets a little repetitive in mocking the inane procedures of the city (a city drowning in paper). More often, however, the accelerating humor and genial tone of the narration (Adamsdale speaks directly to the audience) make these jokes endearingly postmodern and appropriate for the 'in-the-know' crowd.

The play inspires an awkward sort of hope: never mind that T. spends twenty-six hours on hold without ever getting through; she takes a long shower and celebrates her miniature victory: she outlasted the phone. Wiley, who is the more central focus, grows so perplexed by the contradictions of his corporation that he looks to connect with a complete stranger: his quest to trace a trashed receipt back to its original owner is the backbone of the play, and leads to some rather humorous encounters in places like Drincoffee and Bar Space Bar. It's a deviously clever look at our carefully managed routines, and at the prisons we build for ourselves in the name of freedom.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

PLAY: "Coram Boy"

How appropriate that Coram Boy has come to the theater that Les Miserable left behind: although Coram Boy is technically a straight play (the twenty-person chorus is an underscoring classical influence), it's also a period piece with a staggering cast, an epic set (and swelling effects to fill the Neo-Gothic display), multiple levels and multiple sub-plots, and--as befits all big shows--a rotating stage. While some of Coram Boy is just an opportunity for director Melly Still to show off all the means at her disposal, the end result of this bleak and melodramatic show is hopeful--not just for the orphans who have been rescued from their villainous abusers--but for Broadway productions as well.

The play begins in 1742, using theatrical effects from the get-go, as half the cast become props (gargoyles and angels) to set up the cavernous cathedral in which we meet both Meshak Gardiner (Brad Fleischer), the rapturous but mentally unbalanced son of Otis Gardener (Bill Camp, playing the Alan Rickman-like villain to perfect), and Thomas Ledbury and Alexander Ashbrook, two young choir boys who become good friends through their love of music (despite the large gap between Ashbrook's status and Ledbury's). Unlike Spring Awakening, the roles of the children aren't age-appropriate, although it pays off for these young soprano-voiced boys (played, by vocal necessity, by girls like the talented Xanthe Elbrick).

The first act is dedicated to showing Thomas's coming-of-age, the landmark at which his father, the Lord Ashbrook, will strip him of music and make him act like a man. It also focuses on exposing Otis Gardener's wrongdoings, as he collaborates with Mrs. Lynch (Jan Maxwell) to find women of means who need "men of means" to extricate their unwanted babies. The title and concept of the play comes from the Coram Hospital that was the only real orphanage back in the day, and Gardener makes his money off women who trust that he will ferry their children into this better place, rather than to the usual roadside ditch. In actuality--and here's where the production is most powerful--Otis just buries them behind the Ashbrook house, dead or alive, and the cast is called upon as props once more to represent all the buried, wailing baby corpses. The reason why Coram Boy works, why it grows beyond shallow melodrama, is because of this grandiose scope: one actor making the squalling of a baby is nothing, but a fleet of them becomes an unsinkable and theatrical armada of talent, and it is hard to go wrong with such overbearing emotion.

The second act, picking things up eight years later, deal with the repercussions of Act I's conclusion, along with a new focus on the eight-year-old Coram boys, Toby and Aaron, and their new nemesis, Philip Gaddarn, a rich merchant who makes his money illicitly selling the young, disease-free Coram girls into slavery, and putting the black children like Toby into fine garments as liveried servants that can use their fine pink tongues to do whatever the rich might expect of them. Be glad that this sort of evil, unspoken but clearly implied, isn't amplified or acted out by the entire cast: that effect would go too far. As is, Helen Edmundson (who adapts Jamila Gavin's novel) and Melly Still pick the right battles, amplifying only the things that would look cool on stage, like an underwater sequence or an angelic flight from the upper tier.

Coram Boy makes for an easy target because of how big and positively preening it is, at times. But the criticism of this Broadway spectacle is misplaced: this is a convincing, if overwrought world, with characters at least as enjoyable as those from Les Miserable. Although the speedy plot often forces a gloss of the tragedy and love stories, the whole play will strike a nerve, will take your breath away, and will make you tear up.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Tribeca 2007: Day Seven

-Black Butterfly
Francisco J. Lombardi's Black Butterfly well befits its name. From the shrouding grime of Lima, Lombardi never wavers the delicate focus of his film, nor the deliberate struggle of his protagonist, Gabriela (Melania Urbina) a fragile and beautiful schoolteacher, to revenge herself on the corrupt dictator who had her fiancé brutally murdered. Along the way, she unites with Ángela (Magdyel Ugaz), a gum-chewing semi-gumshoe of a reporter who is trying to lose herself in men, only to get caught up in Gabriela's innocent charms and desperate plot.

This is not a tender story, nor (for all the beauty) is Lombardi a forgiving director. From staggering shots of casket-covered walls rising fifteen feet in the air (an aboveground catacomb) to the escort service of the elite, he finds beauty in death and darkness in life, a paradox that has delightfully befuddled audiences for years. Alonso Cuetos, the writer, dips deep into both before stirring the pot, and his elegant touch is to force Gabriela into a relationship with Dotty (Yvonne Frayssinet), a dotty but powerful matriarch of high society that plays against type with a grace and sincerity that makes Gabriela into a manipulator.

At one point, Ángela quips that as a reporter, she "can make up a whole life in a second." But the careful camera work of Francisco J. Lombardi reminds us that it takes more than a second to make life linger on past the final frame.

-Charlie Bartlett
An altogether upbeat, likable comedy, Charlie Bartlett never manages to escape from being overscripted, but succeeds on personality and charm. Anton Yelchin, who plays the title role, is a rare breed of multiple talents, which is why he's perfect to play this rich and culturally astute boy who, in his attempts to become popular, winds up playing psychologist and pharmacist both. His rising star clashes with the principal, a stringent Robert Downey Jr., and it doesn't help much that he's dating the man's daughter (Kat Dennings). The film adds as many eccentricities as it can, from cabaret numbers to Ritalin-induced rampages, and finds a lovely balance in Charlie's manic mother, played by a very loose Hope Davis.

Though it's no surprise that Charlie gets the girl, resolves his issues with his jailed (and therefore absent) father, and helps the principal realize the error of his ways, Gustin Nash's script makes it jibe with high school rather nicely, and Jon Poll's very professional filming manages to remove the director's fingers from the frame, keeping the focus entirely on the kids. Say what you want about Charlie Bartlett: it's got character(s).

-King of Kong
While it's no surprise that Taxi to the Darkside beat King of Kong for best documentary (which is no surprise, given the relevance of torture), this is my pick for the most enjoyable flick of the entire Tribeca festival. Seth Gordon's material is so perfectly eccentric, and contains such a solid narrative in its coverage of the world records of classic video games, that it seems scripted. As is, Billy Mitchell is the charismatic, cocky, self-made Donkey Kong champion who has ruled the roost since 1985, and Steve Wiebe is the unemployed, doubting, family man who is trying to snatch away the title from a seemingly unbeatable 880,000+ score. Walter Day, now officially acknowledged by the Guinness Book of World Records as an official judge of these sorts of events, comments at one point that their rivalry is right up there with the Yankees/Sox . . . and after watching a compressed version of their passive history, there's certainly an epic scope -- something of the King Kong grandeur in the King of Kong gaming.

In any case, Steve Wiebe is the hero of the film, a nice guy who is repeatedly cheated of his victories after the console on which he breaks the record is discredited (by a sinisterly shot Mitchell), and then again after his live, in-tournament record is disrupted by a secret video distributed and set up to steal Wiebe's thunder (and entry into the 2007 world records). Says Mitchell of his tape (of many quotable lines): "Not even Helen of Troy had that much attention." From his unctuous "apprentice," Brian Kuh (who is heartbroken to not be the first person to get a "kill screen" at Funspot), to solid associates like Steve Sanders, there's a conspiracy channeling cabal of gaming elites that draw definitive lines of good and evil across the documentary. Billy is the golden boy of gaming, and therefore practically a Jedi by their standards -- but he's portrayed here as a Sith Lord, full of evil and an unwillingness to back up all his talk with a face-to-face playoff with Steve. "No matter what I say," comes another golden Mitchell line, "it draws controversy -- like the abortion issue." Come on! That's priceless.

Whether or not Billy is really an asshole who "chumpeized" Steve, or whether Wiebe has OCD or mild autism -- these things aren't the point. The point is that Seth Gordon has managed to glorify a new "sport," and entertain us greatly in the process (cheesy 80s music like "You're the Best" only makes it better). Thank god for Steve's young daughter though, who keeps things in perspective: "Some people ruin their lives to be in [the Guinness Book of World Records]." Whether or not this is wasting your life or not, well . . . you'll have to judge for yourself.

Tribeca 2007: Day Six

-Watching the Detectives
Comedy is a very fine art: there's highbrow, lowbrow, and then genre-specific -- we're talking the sort of niche humor that entertains a smallest common denominator. Writer/director Paul Soter has taken a little bit of the low and the genre work that he mastered working with Broken Lizard, and he's made a fitting salute to the old Noir detectives with his fantastic film Watching the Detectives.

Neal (Cillian Murphy) is a staid, movie-obsessed video-store owner (fitting, if you think about it), who gads about on a plush sofa like some upper-class version of Randall (from Clerks), imitating films and mocking customers with his two friends, Lucien (Michael Panes) and Jonathan (Jason Sudeikis). As romance has it, the girl of his dreams is his total opposite, a foxy wildfire of a dame (Lucy Liu, all foxfire, is luminescent in her reacquired giddiness). This girl, Violet, is a practical joker who suffers from boraphobia (yes, the fear of boredom), and who invents all her own fun in the absence of TV. She's "pretty consistently out there," and she allows the film to range from awkward to terrifying to sweet, all while staying absolutely endearing. Whether Soter is doing a straight-spoof of old detective shots (birds-eye through the ceiling fan, golden light spilling through slits in the shade) or the glitzy mockery of digital graininess in his flashbacks, Watching the Detectives is great fun. As Violet says about Neil, I say about this film: "I'm crazy about [it]." Both parts of that sentence are true.

-Born and Bred
Pablo Trapero's Born and Bred is another one of those Spanish films that mixes an exotic location with a savage truth: in this case, the wastes of Patagonia mixed with the almost inevitable (these days) car crash that causes Santiago to try losing himself, as he has lost his wife and daughter. It's an adequate film, but it's lacking the extra edge of crispness found in directors like Alfonso Cuaron, the jagged beauty of a fabulist like Guillermo del Toro, or the epic scope of a panoramic artist like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (to go for the obvious names).

The acting is what woos the audience: there's a heartfelt camaraderie between Santiago and his new best friends, the Santa-like Cacique, and the rough-cut ladies man, Robert. Their friendship is well documented in all walks of life, from the drunken lows of an attempted three-way to the beautiful highs of clear hunting in a snowy forest, all the way to their mundane work on an eroding airstrip in the middle of nowhere. Trapero does well to show us a man drowning in his own sorrow, and the musical selections only serve to pull him further underwater, and there's nothing about Born and Bred that doesn't work (except, perhaps, the extreme cut between the accident and the present day); it's just an unfortunate reality that this sort of narrow-minded tragedy is, for the moment, tapped.

-The Optimists
Let the critics waste their breath finding the good films among the new premieres: the best bang for your buck is letting the best come directly to you, courtesy of Tribeca's Spotlight series. The Optimists, a Serbian film by Goran Paskaljevic, is a fantastically dry and witty meditation on the nature of optimism, by means of Voltaire: "Optimism is insisting everything is good, when everything is bad." Five short films, which share only the actor Lazar Ristovski (from the excellent film Underground), take up this saying as we leap from a miraculous master of hypnosis, come to save a town (that he's an escaped mental patient shouldn't matter, should it?), to a young son, come to make good on his father's (and grandfather's, and great-grandfather's) gambling debts by . . . gambling it all away himself.

What Paskaljevic does so poetically is to capture the grim determination of suckers after the fact, that is, to show the actors at the moment of realizing that they've been had, but that since there's nothing they can do about it, that they should put on a happy face anyway. And so, in the second film, we are immersed in the smoldering rage of an impotent father who cannot avenge his daughter's rape because the rapist is his boss, and the owner of the foundry. In the final film, a bus full of terminally ill or permanently crippled victims are conned into seeking out a spring of youth, only to settle (with a forcefully giddy enthusiasm) for an oily pond that they discover in its place. Here, the shot that lingers is that of the father, clutching his blind daughter in a tight embrace as she continues to say, "I think I can see, Papa, I think I can see something," even though it's painfully obvious to both of them that there is no light at the end of her tunnel. But who am I to say what hope is and isn't? All I can say is that The Optimists has the savage wit of satire down cold: I hope more American directors take note (Thank You For Smoking was the closest we've had, and that was tamed by its political nature).

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

PLAY: "Accomplice: New York"

Good theater can move you to tears of joy, sobs of sorrow or peals of laughter, but it can also move you, too. For instance, it can take you from an undisclosed location in Chinatown to an equally mysterious place in SoHo. Accomplice: New York might even make you cry . . . in delight, if you're suddenly asked to ride a bicycle to retrieve the next clue, caught in some secret combination of The Amazing Race (sans the pressure), an old-school happening, and a walking tour. Above all else, it's a great way to learn more about Manhattan, and to meet people in it; with a crime adventure happening every thirty minutes, if you can indoctrinate yourself into the Accomplice elite, you'll decipher codes in bars bedecked in bras, connect the photographs from location to location, and more.

It's more than clever, however: it's also hilarious. Professional actors await your every move, helping not only to clue you in on the next checkpoint, but also to use their improvisational skills to keep you in good spirits as you trek from neighborhood to neighborhood. You'll meet Italians, Russians, and Jersey girls, delightful stereotypes all, and the only limit to how much fun you'll have is how much you're willing to interact with them (or with each other: unless you bring seven other people with you, you're bound to meet some interesting strangers).

Whether you live in New York or are just visiting, it would be criminal not to take part in Accomplice: New York. Food, drink, and perhaps some new friends await you on this highly intimate experience that makes Manhattan just as much of a character as the actors, and you an integral part of the show.