Monday, September 03, 2007

PLAY: "100 Saints You Should Know"

The following is a preview of 100 Saints You Should Know, which opens September 18th. I do recommend it, so a discount offer is posted below, or right here. Playwrights Horizon, according to artistic director Tim Sanford, has a rushed rehearsal period and then a lengthy period of previews that allow them to use audience talk backs to grow and mature the play, with the idea being that they're a company for the development of new works and the strengthening of a playwright. I fully endorse this, although I do think that they should charge less for the first week (again, that's why I've included the discount). Setting monetary issues aside, at the matinée performance I attended on Sunday, September 2nd, we were all assured that very little would be changed, and while I can't say for sure that everything will be improved, I have faith (pun intended) -- particularly in the confidence of director Ethan McSweeny -- that the actors will deepen their connections to the Kate Fodor's already well written script.

100 Saints You Should Know places its story beneath an innocuous layer, not condemning anyone, but not saving them either. This matches the Church's conceit, well spoken by Father Matthew (Jeremy Shamos), that everybody is filled with evil, but is redeemable. However, Fodor puts this theory to the test: Theresa's (Janel Moloney) reckless lifestyle has led her to a dead-end job with Magic Maids, the only bright spot of which is her twice-a-week cleaning of Matthew's rectory. Her current boyfriend abuses her, as does her teenager daughter, Abby (Zoe Kazan), a selfish, rebellious girl who displaces all her self-loathing onto others.

As Theresa seeks religious answers, Matthew questions his own faith when the Church forces him to take a reflective vacation, where he can examine the urgings that brought him to savor the male nudes of George Platt Lynes. He does so by spending time with his simple mother, Colleen (Lois Smith), a creature of habit and intense faith, clinging to both because she has nothing else. But his quiet solitude is shattered by a random encounter with Garrett (Will Rogers), an awkward, somewhat retarded teen who looks to Matthew (a man his father calls a fag) as the only one who may understand the twin surges of joy and disgust that he gets from looking at male porn.

On the surface, everything is innocent: Theresa drags Abby with her on a road trip to find Matthew, and Garrett leaps at the chance to have a friend in Abby. But the heart is a more complex thing: whether or not Matthew is gay, but he is cut off from his own body and has never received the warm, unconditional love he craves, not even from his mother (who was simply raised in different times). Abby doesn't really want to be a bitch, but at the same time, after being so helpless, she has grown to enjoy feeling empowered. And Theresa, albeit repentant, knows little about how to interact with her daughter.

Ethan McSweeny directs the production with a stern, mechanical hand (chiaroscuro sliding walls of greenish gray subdivide scenes that revolve around an imposing, leafless metal tree) that fills more and more with life (as the scenes continue, the walls continue to fall away, to much better effect here than in Bartlett Sher's direction of Awake and Sing). Like Fodor, he doesn't offer any answers in his minimalist staging, but it's obvious that he's worked with the cast to delve into the subtext, as what's really continually on display are the actors. Lois Smith is the standout, completely losing herself (especially after the dreadful Surface to Air) in a role that offers the least obvious needs. Transformative, with her booming first words and lilting afterthoughts, Smith also gives Shamos clear and immediate needs to play against, and his frustration is all the more visible when set against that indomitable will.

Moloney also delivers a great performance as a reserved woman, tight as her jeans, who tries to release the baggage of the past. Her struggle is internal, captured in a barely maintained frown, and yet we can see it throughout, even when it's not exploding outward against her daughter. As for Shamos, though he begins by somewhat telegraphing his reactions (a habit, perhaps, from Gutenberg! The Musical!), his performance grows more natural, until by the second act, with his confessions of confusion, he achieves the tenderest moment in the theater this year (a simple touch, filled with heartbreaking beauty). With Rogers, there's a lanky eagerness in him that makes him likable, which is a real feat given how over-the-top his character's been written; Kazan, on the other hand, has all-too-believable dialog, and simply needs to go a little deeper in the second act to transform a good performance into a masterful one.

Ultimately, 100 Saints You Should Know is shaping up to be a very sincere show, filled with outstanding performances and some achingly beautiful moments. Perhaps it's too much to ask that you know a hundred saints, but try hard to see this everyday one.