Monday, June 23, 2008

BASH'd: A Gay Rap Opera

Here's a straight opinion of BASH'd: A Gay Rap Opera--there has got to be a better, funnier way to reclaim the word "faggot." Visually pared down (but full of sight gags), the show comes across as a cross between Altar Boyz and Xanadu (without the sharpness of either), and sounds as if it's performed by a white R. Kelly (and he knows a thing or two about repetitive hip-hoperas). The show opens with a comparison to Romeo and Juliet's "star-crossed lovers," and devolves from there to an uneven gloss of how country boy Dillon (Nathan Cuckow) wound up with city boy Jack (Chris Craddock), and how violence caused one of them to fight back. The show is already lighter than air, so after it jumps the shark, it doesn't come back down: there's a Bonnie and Clyde-like twist and that's not the deus ex machina.

"T-Bag" (Craddock) is a talented vocalist: he justifies the humor of hip-hop by being faster, louder, and angrier than his partner, "Feminem" (Cuckow). But as Eminem's Encore showed, skill is meaningless without heart. Hence, BASH'd is clever with its lists--one song spoofs the average gay bar (chickhawks to fag hags; twinks, lesbians, and bears, oh my), another aims to culture us in gay musical icons ("What about Cher?"/"Oh, my shrine's over there."). But simply rapping doesn't reverse the stereotypes of a notoriously intolerant genre; the show comes across as an unfocused assemblage of bad jokes that Craddock and Cuckow seemed to be hoping would be "transformed" into something deeper by the satire.

BASH'd is most effective as its bluntest, with a long recitation of hate crime victims. But it's hard to get real in the midst of parody ("All you real faggots pump your wrists in the air/It's OK to be gay, really out and aware"): while Cuckow and Craddock are positioned well for a comic routine that recasts Eminem's "Cleaning Out My Closet" as "Coming Out The Closet," they're missing the otherwise inexpressible emotions that make rap worthwhile in the first place. "Smash, Boom, Crash," a first-person account from the receiving end of a gay bash, comes across as a grotesque: Aaron Macri's music allows us to keep a distance from the true pain behind it. The truth is, it's hard to be tongue-and-cheek with rap unless your cheek's as fast as your tongue.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Perfect Couple

Photo/Richard Mitchell

At what point do you know a relationship's in trouble? Is it when your best friend, Emma, asks you why you're getting married? Is it when your response is that "real" relationships are about "where you learn to transcend the things you hate about the other person?" Or when you start listening to what "everybody says" not just because you're getting to be That Age--40--but because you're feeling it, too? At first, Brooke Berman's latest play, A Perfect Couple, feels as forced as Isaac and Amy's relationship must be, a collection of well-worn memories held together by the projections of "everybody" involved in the production. As it turns out, Berman's too-perfect structure is an intentional jab at such happiness, one that gives her the "perfect" opportunity to be gleefully glib.

To that task, Maria Mileaf has assembled a top-notch cast, from the comic flirt, Annie McNamara (Emma), to the domineeringly deadpan Dana Eskelson (Amy). She's also had Neil Patel build a set that's up to task with the tone of the piece: a symbolically "perfect" blue outline of a house, its fixings (and feelings) all neatly cupboarded away. Even the men, who Mrs. Berman always seems to have difficulty writing in a balanced way (so much so, that at times, she comes across as a female Neil LaBute), are done justice by James Waterson's gropingly sincere Isaac, and Elan Mose-Bachrach's cheerfully intelligent Josh. Their interactions--even those carefully scripted into dichotomous scenes, like the character revealing "Wedding Duet" between Amy and Emma--are immensely entertaining. And though the lines are pitched for comedy ("Babies are on the proverbial table!") and cultural charm ("Not the same diff.... Financially, it's a totally different 'diff.'"), they still manage to wend their way through complex emotional thoughts, such as the place for secrets in a relationship, or the adulterous "emotional affair."

However, such airy writing isn't good at being direct or forceful. When Amy discovers her stepmother-in-law's diary, and its conclusion that Isaac and Emma are in love, the script falls back into artificiality. It's an outlandish "out" for Amy, and her clashes with Isaac and Amy only lead to evasive double-talk and repetitive denials. The show only recovers once Amy's loosened up with a bottle of wine: her casual conversation with Josh is not only more revealing than anything else in the play, but also honestly funny: "If you get on a bus and like, you think it's headed for New York City but then you realize the bus is actually going upstate to like, Albany, you know, you wouldn't stay on the bus. . . . You commit, and Man, you try, you know, you stay faithful to it and all -- but if it starts going to Albany -- you can't go to Albany, it's fucking awful there."

A Perfect Couple succeeds at turning our happy ideals on their heads, and Berman's earthbound characters have never seemed more engaging. As "everybody" says, after writing similar characters for ten years, you either learn to use that comedy or you stop writing. Mrs. Berman (who also put on Hunting and Gathering at Primary Stages this year) hasn't stopped writing.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Photo/Carl Skutsch

Schoolgirls giggling in the wings. A fish tank of water. These are the postmodern tools that Aya Ogawa uses to dissect the tragic idea of Hamlet's Ophelia, a mad fragment of character drowning in a world passing her by. As a concept, the show works surprisingly well, with each of Oph3lia's three Ophelias adapting a distinct style, which Mrs. Ogawa deftly directs. As a play it is somewhat disappointing: characters lose themselves amid language, but this is fascinating only to an extent (more babble than Babel), and the comic tones are at odds with the somber theme.

We meet our first "Ophelia" in the middle of a slow anonymous drowning: Shizuka (Ikuko Ikari) has fled her love, Hiro--not because he's been cheating on her (he has), but because she found herself consumed by his intense personality. As Shizuka pantomimes her days in pedestrian traffic, surrounded by tightly pressing trench coats, her thoughts peal out in lush Japanese, translated into English with a silken superscript. The thoughts are beautiful, as is the imagery-- this thin, red leaf of a woman, swallowed up by the tan world around her--but it comes across a little bluntly: "I was just juxtaposing my self onto someone else's life, and pretending to live," she says, and it's only the Japanese that prevents it from seemingly wholly artificial.

The second "Ophelia," Cissy (Eunjee Lee), is--believe it or not--the only Asian girl at a Catholic school in Wuhan, and it takes only a few seconds for her to be targeted by the harsh ridicule of stereotypical teenage girls. As a closed off character, fumbling with the hem of her skirt and stumbling over her English, Cissy isn't very interesting, which is most likely why Ogawa paints these scenes up by having the class break out into quirky songs. At the same time, this is the most human of the Ophelia characters, a girl plunged into a world over her head by an ambitious father, easily excited and endearingly shy.

The final "Ophelia" is a nameless translator, played by Maureen Sebastian, which serves to show us the selfless (in both ways) idea of this lost girl. At first, Sarah (Hana Kalinski) can't even find the right conference room to put her in; then, when she joins the conversation, she disappears into the dialogue between two business-oriented producers and a Spanish playwright, appearing only long enough to take abuse as the unfortunate middleman in a game. Ogawa's choice to use a rotating wall emphasizes these choices: the set is constantly redrawing itself, just like the rules of Ophelia's world keep changing, until she is too deep in right field to stop the damage.

There's much to admire in Oph3lia, most notably the way in which Ogawa projects a crucial yet often glossed character into three fully distinct dimensions. Her ability to interweave criticism of the arts into a real dissection of an idea does wonders for the script: watch Jy Murphy's Mr. Eric Pratt attempt to teach Hamlet to these schoolgirls, or Drae Campbell's Andrea lob her opinion--on how theater needs to be shocking to be marketable--on Jorge Alberto Rubio's equally defensive playwright. And the different shifts in tone do succeed, ultimately, in creating a sort of schizophrenically funny scherzo. But with such precise madness, and patient explication, Oph3lia ends up missing the most important part of the show: Ophelia herself.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

How Theater Failed America

Photo/Ursa Waz

Mike Daisey quickly gets to the point in How Theater Failed America, because his monologue has more important goals than the schaudenfraud desire to see Charles Isherwood, Disney, and the lot get theirs. His goal isn’t some global-warming summit filled with hot air and no answers (though he does get aboil): it’s How Theater Failed Mike Daisey. His vibrant drop-of-a-dime storytelling—always sincere—lands between the steadfast directness of Spalding Grey and the manic energy of Chris Farley.

Extemporaneous only in the sense that a well-rehearsed stand-up comedian still knows when to improvise, his sit-down manner is so direct and open—a real monologue, actually spoken to people rather than air—that he’s able to switch totally from talking about how subscriptions are “an opportunity to be randomly fucked in the ass” to how, finding himself back home post-college, he’d think of suicide nightly while doing the dead man’s float in an increasingly icy lake. Whether it’s the subtle combination of AJ Epstein’s focused lights and Jean-Michel Gregory’s sharpened direction or the sight of a man pantomiming the way Sweden shits money into artists’ mouths, it's impossible to look away.

“I just wanted to hear it said,” he says, bringing an end to his tales of robotic regional models, flopped theater companies, and arts institutions that paradoxically take fewer risks the larger they grow. We’re there, to answer Mike’s question, because we just wanted to hear it said, too—and because he says it better than any of us: more creatively, more imaginatively, more hysterically. Would you run sports like theater? “Taking the field, a random bunch of motherfuckers. You’ve never met any of them before, but get excited because some of them have been in Law & Order!” Could you, a starving artist, do something as “super fucked up” as masturbating on stage for the “art” of Jean Genet’s The Balcony?

There’s a table and the stage separating him from us, but he speaks directly to us, and at least for one night, the theater has not failed.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Suspicious Package

[Reviewed for Show Business Weekly]

“Unique New York” is an excellent tongue twister, but it’s also a great description of Gyda Arber’s Suspicious Package, an interactive “iPod Noir” that puts four audience members on the mean streets of Williamsburg, smack in the middle of a classic (and classy) crime adventure. The audio/visual cues of four synchronized Zune Media Players, one for each “actor,” break through the “fifth wall,” with each audience member playing an easily identifiable role—the showgirl, the producer, the detective, or the heiress. Part camp, part 3D-Clue, the result is a carefully choreographed adventure for four.

Savvy theatergoers may recognize traces of Rotozaza’s audience-performed Etiquette, which used audio cues and props to tell a story in miniature at Veselka, or bits of Accomplice, an interactive walking tour in which participants follow clues from colorful characters to move from location to location in the city. The mobile Zune video allows Suspicious Package to go further: the colorful characters are now black-and-white “film” stars that appear onscreen to provide backstory and motivation, and the recorded cues aren’t restricted to a restaurant table. This allows for a more creative interpretation of each task: how you choose to tail a fellow “cast mate” (or flirt) is entirely up to you. It’s also an enjoyably immersive and anachronistic experience, listening to radio rebroadcasts from the golden age in the broad daylight of modern Metropolitan Avenue.

If there’s any complaint, it’s the brevity of the show: only forty-five minutes long. Still, there’s a lot of original content packed into that—and, because each actor goes their own separate way, plenty of reasons to revisit the show as another character. The videos are well-acted and directed (right down to the credits) in a heartfelt homage to the early years of cinema. Even the wry humor of the detective novel is preserved: “She was like a tarantula on angel’s food cake.”

The raw potential for putting fans into films and taking the powerful illusions of theater off the stage and into the street is far from fully realized, but it’s an enjoyable alternative way to experience a play. I guess it’s true: good things come in small, suspicious packages.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Standing Clear

Photo/Kemachat Sirichanvimol

Standing Clear
, a new group comedy from the Coffee Cup theater company, has a very simple message: our anonymous city is a hotbed of comedy, you just have to take off the iPod long enough to listen, put down the book long enough to look. But while that's true of the actual subway, it's sadly not the case with this random assemblage of "stops" (scenes). For all that material, the show is rarely even skin deep: that's worse than an episode of MADtv. It's rather telling that Ishah Janssen-Faith and Jack McGowan, the two actors credited with writing the show (with additional material from the cast), choose to play almost identically annoying busybodies: they're after cheap laughs.

Really cheap laughs: apparently, when Melinda Ferraraccio is alone on subway cars, she performs pole dances. Ben Holbrook seems to think that anxious businessmen can be summed up entirely by repeating the phrase "Oh no" and refusing to interact with the world around him. Becca Hackett isn't even interested in the actual subway: her characters mostly break into dance as a means of expressing their loneliness. A crowded rush hour segment (set to The Police's "Don't Stand So Close To Me"), already funny and creative enough, gets a drag queen for emphasis; two Austrian tourists--their giant cardboard backpacks hilarious in of themselves--don't just bump into people, they purposely smack into them, like malicious little pinballs. Worse are the recurring characters: annoying the first time, they're torturous the second. These characters aren't deep enough to merit an attempt at resolution--especially when that resolution comes in the form of yet another cheap joke. (The exception that proves this rule: Holbrook's exaggeratedly crazy homeless man is given a present by a kindly woman and he later returns the favor by scaring off a man who sexually harasses her.)

The only reason Standing Clear is running at all is on account of Barbara Kerger's conducting. Though the individual scenes are still gratingly empty (much like a train late at night), she uses the space creatively when there's an entire group. At the opening, she turns the focus onto us: how the cast might imagine we look on the train. By the middle, the action is internalized: one by one, each actor listens to an excerpt from their iPod while the rest of the cast acts out what that person might be seeing. The play concludes by breaking down those characters, with the actors switching props and positions as they show just how seamless the anonymity is: in a train, as in life, we can be any character, depending on who's watching.

Still, had there been an emergency brake, I would have pulled it. To have to sit there, watching all that potential go to waste . . . that made made me a sick passenger.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Vincent River

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Despite the tumultuous subject matter of Vincent River--a boy, haunted by the body he discovered, confronts the victim's mother--the play is more like a lazy river than whitewater. Philip Ridley has written two very deep and human characters, Davey and Anita, but in his rush to have them spill their guts, he fails to make a connection, and the play runs aground on that shallowness. For a while, Deborah Findlay and Mark Field do enough to steer the show onward, but the last, inevitable third, in which we find out how Davey was involved in the murder, is so calm and removed that it fails to have an impact.

The problem lies in the narrative, which forces revelation, rather than honestly finding it. Anita, a shrewd 53-year-old woman, strong and self-reliant, acts like it's an interrogation, grilling Davey for information. She cross-examines the story he's telling: first, that he has a girlfriend (the body was found in a bathroom known for random gay hookups), and then his reasons for taking her on a "shortcut" through Shoreditch Rise. When that fails, she proposes that they trade information--he'll tell her about the body, and she'll tell him what Vincent was like--so that they can both stop feeling so haunted. But even that's not enough: she guides him--hypnotherapy like--through his memories, and he gives her pot and does reflexology to loosen her up. But it's artificial, and the finale comes across like something out of The Usual Suspects, as she pieces enough of his lies together to prod him toward the truth--even Davey says "the penny dropped."

It's understandable for Philip Ridley to want his words to drop like bombshells, but in rigging the flow of information, he ends up bottling humanity. There are short bursts of it every time the story gets away from describing Vincent's death, but despite the considerable skills of the actors, they can't steer the play away from its procedural heart.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Honest-to-God True Story of the Atheist

Don't let the flimflam, vaudeville, exaggeration, or absurd plot shifts of The Honest-to-God True Story of the Atheist fool you. Dan Trujillo's an incredibly sharp playwright, conflating the cures of the Church with those of a Viagra huckster ("It'll put the stone/in your bone) in an opening so grossly comic that it makes the underlying conceit all the more subtle. Everyone--even the most ardent Atheist--believes in something, it's just a question of what, and by playing up the nature of plays (i.e., nothing is real and yet belief sustains the illusion), Trujillo succeeds in making an entertaining narrative about the desecration of a baby Jesus statue not into a question of faith, but of what faith is.

The play is well-served by director Isaac Butler's familiarity with both the playwright and actors, for the writing requires flawless shifts between the presentational and the intimate. Not only do all three actors (Daryl Lathon, Abe Goldfarb, and Jennifer Gordon Thomas) have the range necessary to switch from mock-selves ("slapstick realism," if you will, concerning a pissed off Jen and her arsenal of gag weapons) to colorful characters (watch Abe's head explode as he yells "stupid fools"), but they look as if they've doing this show for years. There are only a few places that look under-rehearsed, and that's the fault of unavoidable technical cues in the Under St. Mark's space that fail to capture the "universe-altering" magic that's interrupting the "show."

Everywhere else--even when speaking in tongues--The Honest-to-God True Story of the Atheist remains thoroughly engaging. The pace of the show helps, with the actors not only quickly transitioning between styles, but between their dramatization of The Atheist's downfall, and their running commentary on it. ("Crazy." "Yeah." "Sad, too." "A little funny." "But sad." "Mostly crazy.") This glib buoyancy is what helps Trujillo to zing us all, with interesting religious arguments (e.g., the existence of cold, dark, or evil) sandwiched between sight gags, like the "unbroken" egg (whoops) or Daryl's "magic coat."

A professor of mine once said that the purpose of comedy was to lift the weight of the world off one's shoulders, if only for a moment. There are many who find that same release in religion. How appropriate, then, to find a show willing to try both at once: that's a medicine worth taking.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Jollyship the Whiz-Bang

Photo/Carol Rosegg

"The sea: vast, mysterious, wet," says Nick Jones, lead singer (and playwright) of Jollyship the Whiz-Bang. It's a statement of the obvious, one of the many deadpan remarks that make Jollyship a riot from start to finish. The play's subtitle is pretty dead-on, too: "A Pirate Puppet Rock Odyssey." If anything, that's an understatement, for while the band has pirate themed songs and one-liners ("By Neptune's green balls!"), and while it's true that most of these jokes are delivered by a green-skinned, white-haired, psychopath of a puppet ("I've been murdering people since you was a little baby! Since I was a little baby! I murder babies!"), "rock odyssey" hardly does justice to all the comedy crammed into rock songs like "Don't Mutiny (On Me)," the serious vocals on "Funny at the Time," the musical chops on a solo-filled showcase like "Roving," or the visual image of a Crab (or, Jumping Jack McGillihan the Deck Hand Man) soloing on a puppet Fendercaster. To the uninitiated, hurry up and set sail ("[trade] your boy-card for a man-certificate"); to the rest, here's another statement of the obvious: Jollyship hits you in the face with a cannonball . . . of fun!

The plot is as loosely structured as the crew's mission (to find "Party Island, where the drink is free and the girls are half-off on Tuesdays"), but while that sounds Adult Swim-like, the story uses this freedom to riff freely on alcoholism, platonic love, jealousy, and witchcraft, all while focusing on Captain Clamp's decent into madness ("I Killed the Cabin Boy"). The use of puppets also frees up the acting of the musicians, most of whom seem shy when playing human versions of themselves. Well, the play explains the power of dressed-up driftwood, so I suppose this just happens to be what floats this boat, Jollyship the Whiz-Bang, and it damn well works. (It should be stressed that Nick Jones, who fronts the band, wrote the show, and plays both Clamp and Tom--more impressive when you consider how many scenes they have together--needs no help gallivanting across the stage, like a more mature Chris Kattan.)

It's as if Avenue Q's raunchy puppets met Tenacious D's utterly serious self-satire, with a healthy dose of Family Guy-style irreverence for good measure. Thankfully, Jollyship has grown organically over the years (the show is a culmination of Nick Jones and Raja Azar's fateful pairing back in 2002), so the comedy flows naturally, jarring only in the sense that you'll be convulsing with laughter. This also enables the group to constantly poke fun at itself: the pirate jokes ("Why don't you just replace one of my hands with a hook, then I can be a total cliche!"), referential humor ("No I can't, physically, open a box. My hands are too small."), and what seem to be ad-libbed additions to the script are never not funny.

Puppet musicals work, because the absurdity of each individual part only helps to fuel the other. Jollyship keeps that fire stoked with some clever pantomimes to support the chorus of the song, and the very intelligent casting of Steven Boyer and Julie Lake, two very talented "vocalists" who not only provide voices for critical puppets like Elford and Crab, but also help to backup the group numbers (credit also the Ars Nova staff, which has one of the nicest acoustical systems in the city). The show is also in the excellent hands of director Sam Gold, who has kept every element of the show--from the crucified mermaid on Donyale Werle's unfolding set to the obscure actions of Paul Burn's puppets (Elford's neck breathes, Crab's eyes twitch)--focused on the bountiful comedy just over the bend. It's not just the curvature of the Earth, folks: check out Jollyship the Whiz-Bang, and you'll feel it, too.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Dangerous Personality

Photo/Monique Carboni

There's very little tension in Sallie Bingham's A Dangerous Personality, a major dramatic stumbling block that the show never quite manages to get over. However, Martin Platt's clever direction manages to pull off a comedy instead, a fittingly ironic fate for the late Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, whose struggle to establish the Theosophical Society ended with her being debunked as a fraudulent mystic. From the gilded yet frayed Lamasery (richly designed by Bill Clarke) to a sweltering house in the Hindu Quarter of Bombay, characters keep standing up for New Age idealism (religion without the Church) only to ultimately stoop to comedy. Theater's a bit of a trick, anyway, and for what it's worth, the finale proves that Mrs. Bingham has something up her sleeve after all.

The play opens with all the fluttering energy (although not the intent) of farce: Blavatsky takes dictation from her invisible "master," while Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, her crusty roommate (and theosophical partner), helps to smooth things over with the maid, Little Dorritt, in preparation for the evening's guests. Enter the Countess Constance Wachtmeister, a self-proclaimed clairvoyant who is adventurously drawn to the ideas of Isis Unveiled, Blavatsky's book on spiritualism. Soon after, a visit from Thomas Edison, a comic exaggeration who hams his way through what would otherwise be a mash of bland idealism and lofty paeans to to the so-called magic of hard science: her mystic "astral telegram" and his "wizardry" in a laboratory. It's all rather flung together, although this works, for plot is meaningless to a woman like Blavatsky who operates in a world all her own.

Four months later, in Act II, the slow-boiling drama finally starts to show some steam. Still, with all its carefully worded contrivances, the conversation between Blavatsky and Reverend Hiram Bingham has all the appeal of a microwaved meal (again, not always a bad thing). However, things finally, truthfully, heat up four months later (Bingham's taken some liberties with chronological events), with all of Blavatsky's insecurities and Olcott's resentments coming to a head. It's a satisfying finale, given how subtly the actors, Jodie Lynne McClintock and Graeme Malcolm, foreshadow their true feelings, especially McClintock, whose meditative "dictation" and need to preach are signs of a very human duality: the need to escape and the need for attention.

However, it's a bit of a mixed evening, with the unchecked comedy of Nancy Anderson and Sheffield Chastain (Dorritt and Edison) dousing the intimations of romance behind Lisa Bostnar's inviting attitude (as the countess) and preventing the sharp intelligence of the Theosophic idea from being fully expressed as something other than a cheap parlor trick. No, there's nothing dangerous about A Dangerous Personality, but at least it's got some personality.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Hired Man

Photo/Tristram Kenton

What happens when an epic story--Melvyn Bragg's The Hired Man, the first part of the Cumbrian Trilogy--gets compressed into a chamber musical? You get a show bursting at the seams with energy, but one that's stuck at the seams all the same. The musical is blessed with Howard Goodall's catchy folk songs (from the frothy melody of "Get Up And Go Lad" and the percussive shoveling of "Work") and individuals like Richard Colvin and Claire Sundin who are more than capable of switching into the operatic rage and sweet sorrow of songs like "What Would You Say To Your Son?" and "Fade Away." However, Bragg's adaptation condenses so much that the scenes become melodramatically weak, and the songs, barely tethered to the text, float through the audience more like a themed revue than a show. And though it's hard to say that matters when the counter-melodies of four different songs explode into a rousing finale, the show is too glibly forced: hell, the song "War" could very well be part of a musical reenactment of the same.

The show opens in 1898, with a glimpse of life before unions: workers like John (Colvin) cluster in hiring fairs, looking for work, but without the power to negotiate much of a living wage. ("Work's the only thing that's cheap these days," says one farmer.) Desperate to support his pregnant wife, Emily (Sundin), John contracts himself to Pennington (Andrew Wheaton), unaware that his wife has a history with Pennington's son, Jackson (Simon Pontin), the roguish antihero. It's not a particularly strong first act: the scenes are melodramatic, not memorable, and many of the songs, light and frilly, bleed into one another.

That's the cost of such compression: Bragg wants to give a wide cross-section of life, and so one of John's brothers, Isaac (Stuart Ward), introduces us to Westmorland-style wrestling, while the other, Seth (David Stothard), sows the seeds of unionizing dissent. We meet the girlish Sally (Katie Howell), only long enough for her to joke about marriage, and Jackson turns his adventurous eyes from his farming father's native land to the foreign adventures of the army, there's no weight to any of his words. And while Act II delivers substance to some of these topics, it does so by simply skipping from event to event, giving up on development altogether.

Ultimately, the show too often feels as reductive as the set's painted backdrop, and Daniel Buckroyd's direction is too stiffly staged as a tableaux. Of course, reducing something so epic still leaves The Hired Man standing tall above a great many of this season's off-Broadway musicals; I just hoped for something a little less businesslike, and a little more soulful.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Hospital 2008 (episode one)

Photo/Dixie Sheridan

The saying goes "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," so the fans and fanatics drooling each year over Axis Theater Company's serial drama Hospital are not likely to be disappointed with this year's four surreal, comic installments. But from a critical point of view, it's hard to process what, other than a ridiculously experimental showcase, Axis is after. Watching Hospital 2008 episode one is akin to grabbing 35 minutes from the middle of a David Lynch film: the narratives are loose and disconnected, the actors are disturbingly present (yet blurred), and the ambiance (nicely evoked here by Kyle Chepulis's literal cavern of a set and David Zeffren's selective lighting) is unsettling. The trouble is that this serial version lacks the deepening compulsion of Lynch's craft: nothing within this segment ties in to anything (unless you count cryptic references to "an apartment"), and with such a short run-time, the mood of the piece never pulls the audience under.

In other words, the play is broken synecdoche--that is, the outside world (for the play takes place within a coma victim's mind) is not at all represented (recognizably, at least) by the symbols within it. The end result is something that exists purely as a cult experience, and that's a shame, given the strong performances from cast members like David Crabb (as a research physician with a wide vocal range), Laurie Kilmartin (as a tentative and deranged nurse), and Edgar Oliver (as the Mad Hatter). It's no surprise that the three protagonists, trapped in New York's Water Tunnel #3, are so forgettable: straight men have no place in surreal comedy.

It's hard to criticize Hospital 2008: it's not really a play (let alone a self-contained episode). There's no resolution, and it's hard to explain exactly what the obstacle is, considering that the protagonists are so aimless. Unlike Lost, which at least ekes out answers and delivers on action, Hospital remains resolutely focused on dreams, and while Randy Sharp does an excellent job of staging that undefined world (for example, televisions mounted above the stage show loops of a hospital room and a heart-rate monitor, an effect that is both anachronistic and creepy), in the end, it boils down to a series of cues (lights up, lights down) briefly enlivened by weird antics.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Port Authority

[Reviewed for Show Business Weekly]

Conor McPherson can be a hypnotic playwright. Unfortunately, in this brooding triptych of monologues, his lyrical gift for the rhythms of the soul rarely does more than the hypnotist’s announcement: “You are getting sleepy.” Like The Good Thief, an early one-man show of his, Port Authority is a tinderbox of passivity that never sparks; it is a full description, but of empty lives and absent loves.

The youngest character, Kevin (John Gallagher, Jr.), stands up and, like a spectator of his own life, tells us of his roommates: two reckless, feckless drunks, and Claire —supposedly the love of his life — of whom he speaks dispassionately and actively follows but never actually pursues. The oldest, Joe (Jim Norton), is a similar specter, though at least more daring — between drinks at his nursing home, he thinks fondly of a neighbor whose image was so strong in his mind that he tried to steal her picture. Stuck between is Dermot (Brian D’Arcy James), who speaks in a colorful present tense about perfectly ordinary stuff — like accidentally ogling his new boss’s wife’s tits. Despite being married, he’s never found love; only desire (a desire which, unlike his narration, is tragically in the past). All three are fine performers, and, with Gallagher and Norton, their recent work (Spring Awakening and McPherson’s own The Seafarer) helps to give some perspective on how dull and empty their onstage lives are now.

McPherson is a wonderful naturalist, but sitting three generations of Irishmen on a lonely wooden bench and having them take turns speaking is far from natural. Nor is director Henry Wishcamper willing to pursue a natural approach. Although Jenny Mannis’s plain costumes and Takeshi Kata’s unadorned set clearly ground the play in reality, Wishcamper practically poses his actors between monologues, and Matthew Richards’s lighting design — which cannot go more than a minute without shifting shadows — is like an epileptic fit in super-slow motion.

Port Authority is a play about feelings — particularly longings — that cannot be explained. “I felt like that was the truth,” says Joe. What this means for McPherson’s world is that every word spoken either takes away from those feelings or only seems like the truth.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

EST Marathon

More a relay race between playwrights than a marathon, Ensemble Studio Theater's thirtieth year of Marathon one-act plays is still the Olympic standard for festivals of this nature. The range of talent isn't just diverse--it's downright bizarre, finding Pulitzer Prize-winning David Auburn on the same playbill as Michael John Garces, an AD in LA, or to see the off-beat work of Taylor Mac and Anne Washburn on the same night as mass-produced Neil LaBute. But it's bizarre only in the sense of magical abundance; in truth, there's an abundance of talent on display at this bazaar (to be fair, also some coal and rough-cut diamond). Thanks to a mercifully smooth technical production by the EST staff, Maiko Chii's adaptable sets, and Evan Purcell's fluid lighting, Marathon 30 provides audiences with the opportunity to see the highs and lows of the one-act form.

Series A, which closed on May 31, opened not on a high or a low note, but on a note all the same, that of Willie Reale's A Little Soul Searching, a short musical ditty that falls into a trap of condensation. It's somewhat of a frustrating piece, for it operates simply to poke fun at Earth: two A-class brother-and-sister souls, on the verge of reincarnation, think they deserve better--like planet Felicity, where paper towels actually absorb . . . and people don't try to kill one another. The resolution can't help being pedantic, for the show is stifled by its length. Not so, on the other hand, for David Auburn's An Upset, a play that not only comes full circle, but communicates a full story in the process, as the young, easygoing, unranked tennis upstart (Matt Lauria) makes his name beating the old cocky pro (Darren Goldstein) . . . only to find himself in those same shoes just a few years later.

Michael John Garces's Tostitos is also worth noting: it's improved since The Shalimar's You People, with the small space helping to condense the very real, very frightening anger of Red (Andres Munar). But that anger still isn't recognizable; it's pure (Karen Eilbacher) and rediscovered innocence (Jenny Gomez) that gives us something to hold on to. As for Amy Herzog's Christmas Present and Quincy Long's Wedding Pictures: as quirky comic experimentations, they're well-suited for the one-act form (the latter's mime-to-music brings lighter times to mind) but a gimmick's a gimmick, even if that gimmick cracks jokes at STDs.

Series B, which runs until June 20th, has the same peaks and valleys, but a more natural approach that speaks to the times and tones of the playwrights. Unfortunately, Anne Washburn's October/November lacks the buoyancy of her strange comedies, settling too much into a bland and strangely passionless "love" story between a boy (Gio Perez), a girl (Amelia McClain), and a the idea of the freedom of a guitar. The same goes for Lloyd Suh's Happy Birthday William Abernathy, but at least the dryness of its dialogue is balanced by the originality of the concept, in which a racist great-great-grandfather (Joe Ponazecki) has to come to terms with his great-grandson (Peter Kim): "I don't know how my family become so Oriental," he says one minute, "You should've stayed in China where you belonged," the next. Of course, he does so entirely without pants on, which too easily allows us to retreat from the underlying conceit.

Raising the stakes a little higher, but not taking things far enough, is David Zellnick's Ideogram, which connects an interesting concept to an emotional core. The joking tone allows for a clever narrative: Caucasian Jasper (Bryan Fenkart) writes fake Chinese "chicken-scratch" on his Asian friend Drew's (Pun Bandhu) birthday card only to find that he's actually writing beautiful plays. But beneath the in-jokes (Jasper instructs Siho Ellsmore, the actress playing his Chinese translator, to play the stereotype as "Central Casting old"), there's also truth--for Jasper's "gift" turns Drew into a jealous and perhaps even self-hating man. The only problem is that it ends so soon that Zellnick's forced to wrap things up with a tidy koan-like conclusion.

In the same boat is Neil LaBute, whose The Great War will either be the best thing you see in the festival, or one of the worst. For me, it's the worst: it says a lot, very rapidly, but in such shallow dimensions that it need not have been written at all. The other playwrights seem to be striving at something--but LaBute settles for more of the same, and not top-shelf more of the same. The lines are sharp as ever, as Woman (an impressive Laila Robins) tells Man (a somewhat believable Grant Shaud) that she doesn't want the kids: "They're nothing to write home about, even if you're halfway through an e-mail." But what you see is what you get: if it's true that "the truth always burns like a motherfucker" then it's no surprise that both characters in this play turn out to be so cold. Neither one wants the kids: what else is new?

The highlight of the evening, and of the series so far, is Taylor Mac's Okay, which uses the basic elements of farce to explode our perceptions of shallow people. Senior prom, girl's bathroom, and the prom queen's in the center stall, trying desperately not to give birth (and you thought having your period at prom was tough?). As her tragedy plays out (and Susannah Flood should get a medal for remaining so serious), her friends file in--Jordan (Kether Donohue), who yaks on and on about everything (and yet nothing) under the sun, followed by Trish and her silent cohort Trinity (Olivia Mandell and Jessica Jade Andres), who go from snorting coke and spraying their hair to talking about Iraq and the big issues they're most certainly not OK with.

Stephanie hides from her peers by crouching, underwear dangling, on the toilet seat, Trish and Trinity soon follow suit to avoid Josh (Bobby Moreno), who drunkenly proclaims his love before passing out, and confident Mike and nervous Tommy (Johnny Pruitt and Danny Fernandez) who are just looking for a quiet place to have sex (we can see all the actors in the stalls, but these two can't). Taylor Mac's dialogue is sinfully easy, and his monologues are absurdly touching (particularly Mike's rant about the 400-pounder he once "fucked"): his text literally slides across the floor until it's close enough to smack you in the face. All the ditsy comedy disguises the disgusting truths, not just the ones in the center stall, but about what we actually make of the word (or feeling) "okay." Juggling that many balls, especially in a one act, is an impressive feat, not just for the playwright or director (Jose Zayas), but for the cast, too, and that's the sort of envelop-pushing that one-acts should aim for.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Reasons To Be Pretty

Photo/Joan Marcus

It's not hard to put yourself in the shoes of Neil LaBute's latest accidental fuck-up of a character, Greg. Just have a few drinks with your best friend (call him Kent), and then, while talking about the undeniably hot chick who just started working the register, slur something about how, yeah, she's hot, your girlfriend of four years isn't pretty like that. It's a shame that Kent's wife, Carly, is not only in the next room, listening, but that her best friend, Steph, happens to be your girlfriend, but that should at least clue you in on why, as the lights rise, you're stuck in a fight you can't win.

Reasons To Be Pretty takes Greg's words at face value; the question the audience has to determine, as Steph calls him out on what she perceives to be the relationship-ending honesty of his words, is whether or not LaBute is capable of writing the truth. The answer: yes, and no. LaBute writes in a sort of hyper-realism, in which the situations are all too genuine, but the dialogue surrounding them is so crisp that it tends to create artificialities that stifle any genuine emotion: protecting the characters with patter. His prolific writing makes him a lazy playwright: the character in the center is real, but everyone else is just acting on him: they feed him pap, exit the stage, and cease to exist.

Reasons To Be Pretty ends up the same: as Greg, Thomas Sadoski is a marvelously human lead. He weathers Hurricane Steph's questions with a justly confused attitude, he tries to win her back with the best intentions, he puts on a happy face (and lets it crack) trying to deal with her new boyfriend and Kent's infidelities, and tries to do the right thing, even though the books he's read don't tell him what that is. However, Alison Pill's rabid rage against him comes out of nowhere: she does brilliantly to give Greg something to react to, and her acting is cool as ice, but it lacks humanity. (She gets some of it back in the second act, but by then, it seems like she's just putting us on.) The same, more so, for Pablo Schreiber's turn as Kent: he acts as if he knows he's the asshole, and he wallows in that, muddying up any truth or clear intent to his actions. He's still acting (I hope: this seems to be a stereotype for him), but it's all focused on Greg; nothing touches him. Surprisingly, LaBute leaves something in the tank for Carly, and Piper Perabo snaps it up, sharply transitioning from a walking punchline ("That's why they call it night," she says. "Because it's dark.") into the sort of woman who is smart enough to know that she's a little stupid, and brave enough to face those feelings.

Perhaps understanding the limitations of the play, Terry Kinney directs to LaBute's strengths: the production is extremely well-oiled, from the swift scene changes to the rapid-fire dialogue, which pops even when it's firing blanks. The set--a room boxed in by Wal-Mart-like storage--is the only ambiguous thing in the play; everything else is sharp and to the point. And that's perhaps what LaBute most needs to work on: Reasons To Be Pretty suffers from the inclusion of four aimless monologues (one per character) that are meant to illuminate, but only reiterate what's already coming across in the scenes. This is that laziness back to haunt LaBute: if he knew how to write more developed characters, perhaps he'd be able to trust them a little more.