Wednesday, October 27, 2010

THEATER: Barring the Unforseen

Sitting in the pitch darkness of IRT, with only the occasional beam of an usher's flashlight slicing through the rows, it's amazing how clearly one tunes into the talkative audience members around them, and surprising how much they share, as if they are sitting alone with their friends, as if the rest of us have disappeared. It's easy to listen when you cannot watch, and in that sense, Mike Daisey has not handicapped himself at all for his latest monologue, Barring the Unforeseen, for he spends most of it speaking in the darkness, into a microphone, a voice from afar, though he is--as usual--sitting at his plain desk, with a glass of water and his outlined notes before him. He has, however, handicapped himself in just about every other way, from largely impersonal subject matter (as removed as he tells us his psychiatrist father was) to the whispering tone of a ghost story, which subdues and cripples the sprightly energy that's usually in his surprised and outraged inflections.

Skipping over the obvious and self-deprecating puns of the title, then, Barring the Unforeseen has set itself an impossible goal: to describe madness, or the brink thereof. His story begins with a coincidental encounter that leads to a break-in seance at H. P. Lovecraft's home, but refracts all over the place from there, touching on Lovecraft's childhood (and his racism) to Daisey's own upbringing, in empty, lonely Maine, where he felt he had nothing better to do than to ponder death in between the jam sandwiches that were his only highlight. As usual, the strongest threads are those that involve Daisey's memory directly, but unlike previous shows--like If You See Something, Say Something's trip to Trinity--these threads haven't yet been woven into a sturdy narrative.

Of the seven monologues, three deal with his first childhood friend, a young girl who lived in a literal shack and who, for some reason, deigned to be friends with him. But while we get terrific descriptions of the yellowed linoleum floor and the like-new bathtub, her low-ceiling attic bedroom and the off-stage tension of her father's arrival home, their actual relationship remains unclear, as does the would-be-chilling revelation of what really went on in that home. Moreover, none of this really ties back into the Lovecraftian world introduced at the beginning of the show--save for Daisey's eerie recollections of Ouija boards--and many of the scenes are aborted without conclusion: how exactly did their seance end?

Barring the Unforeseen, despite dealing in ghost stories or in the creeping just-out-of-sight reality of true terror, fails to be unsettling in the least, though it's at least admirable that Daisey doesn't go for cheap frights in the darkness. Then again, Daisey's calm, measured intellect doesn't lend itself to the campfire narrative, and despite the interesting turn it takes at the very end, the lack of a driving urgency behind this story--and the erratic plotting--makes for an ultimately dull monologue.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

THEATER: The Halloween Plays

Photo/Steve Bartel

They're called The Halloween Plays, but they'll end performances on Halloween. They're supposed to be "scary," but given the styles of the three creators--Austin McCormick's baroque dance, Cynthia Babak's contemporary charm, and Greg Kotis's campy wit--there's little horror. They're supposed to be appropriate for young adults, but there's a tight margin with all the implicit sex, death, and violence. To sum up, whatever they're supposed to be, The Halloween Plays have ended up as a middling series of one-acts.

Kotis's entry, "Salsa," is the strongest of the lot, mainly because he doesn't bother to mask his voice or to play for the audience. Kevin Hogan is made for such work, with a muggy face and a versatile range, he chews up the paltry diner scenery as his character, Harry, goads the hot-seeking Joe (Sean Patterson) into trying an especially potent blue-chili sauce. The punchline is a bit disappointing, as is the thrifty appearance of Chicotlitzl (Alvin Hippolyte), but the recurring gags and infectious cackling does enough to sell the short.

The same can't be said of Babak's "Too Much Candy," which starts off well enough: a middle-aged Hansel (Stuart Zagnit) goes to regression therapy with a familiar Doctor (Claire Beckman) in order to cure his traumatic addiction to candy. But while the sight of Zagnit helplessly cramming chocolate into his mouth--or attempting to hold himself back--is hilarious, the play takes several steps backward as it uses flashbacks to relay the familiar gingerbread story that we already know. Nell Balaban's direction keeps the transitions brisk, and has some nicely staged bleeding between the past and present, and Scott Voloshin draws some laughs out of his purposely horrendous portrayal of the Witch, but there's simply too much clutter. Mothers, fathers, birds, children: there are moments when it's all just a bunch of unfunny squawking.

As for "Denouement," it's the first of McCormick's pieces not directly tied to an existing framework (past shows have centered on Snow White, the Trojan War, the Garden of Eve), so it, too, winds up rambling. Jeff Takacs's narrative is fine, and delivered in a fey and ghoulish way, but the plot is so mundane--three guns, six bullets, three couples, will any survive?--that the entire evening becomes about the dancing. And while this would normally be enough, the lack of any props and set pieces, not to mention the one-note costuming, call attention to the similarity of these threadbare numbers. If you've never seen Company XIV before, the stylized twirls and dips may be enough, but it's perhaps too on the nose about "the death of the passionate ones."

Halloween is the time to dress up, think big, and be something other than what you usually are: with The Halloween Plays, Company XIV and the co-producing World Repertory Theatre have merely put themselves forward, the result being that none of them have particularly stood out.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

THEATER: (un)afraid

Photo/Anton Nickel

You walk through a dim hallway before reaching the stage, the cavernous Living (or, for this, Undead) Theater, and are instructed to sit on a series of steps, a creepy scrim behind you. It's an awkward position--if you're prone to nerves--as it allows actors to creep up behind you, and both the title of the show--(un)afraid--and the nature of the performers--the non-illusory New York Neo-Futurists--keep that possibility alive throughout the show, assuming the dark woods, campfires, bloodcurdling screams, or Ouija boards don't get you first.

Ironically, though the first of many questions directly asked to the audience is, "Who here is ready to get scared?" the four writers/actors of (un)afraid have little interest in spooking you, despite what the bloody brides and men in hockey masks with chainsaws may have you believe. In actuality, the performers--Jill Beckman, Cara Francis, Ricardo Gamboa, and Daniel McCoy--are there to bare their own fears and, by sharing them with the audience, to purge themselves of them. The show succeeds less in forcing the audience to confront some of these "nightmares" than by bringing them to consider just what it is about these things that causes a reaction. The puerile nature of many of these Neo-Futurist skits helps to enhance this: yes, Bloody Mary and all those other urban legends are totally silly, but are you brave enough to stand up and say those words into a broken mirror? Are you frightened of horror movie monsters, but totally inured to scenes of actual violence and real human suffering?

It's hard to accurately critique (un)afraid, for it has branching paths (sixteen "special" scenes, of which only four will be seen each night) that can make the evening quite erratic. It also relies--more than previous Neo-Futurist shows--on the audience, and has less of an immediate gimmick (like The Soup Show's nudity) to help them open up. And it's impossible to tell which quirky moments will penetrate your defenses enough to make an impact: do country ballads and red-spandex-clad men doing interpretively devilish dances work for anyone? Thankfully, the majority of core material is solid stuff, and the deliberately funny scenes are big hits: their demonstrations of different types of fears and suggestions for surviving a horror movie (running) or an apocalypse (Twinkies). Ultimately, the world is only as frightening as we choose to believe it is ("The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," right?), so make a choice and check out (un)afraid.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

THEATER: The Pumpkin Pie Show: Amber Alert

If the content of The Pumpkin Pie Show is any indication, then playwright/actor Clay McLeod Chapman would make a terrific parent. Not because he could scare the bejesus out any child with these stories--and Halloween is fast approaching--but because he's able to see the beauty in the ugliness of the world, and is able--year after year--to approach his showcase of monologues with an infectiously wide-eyed wonder, to get you pump(kin)ed up, regardless of mood. Above all, however, is his ability to empathize, a bit of craft that turns even the most vile people into victims.

This year's entry, Amber Alert, collects five new stories, but has lost some of the specificity of last year's Commencement, which, being a series of interlocked tales dealing with the aftermath of a school shooting, had more at stake. The tension is lessened, too, by the choices to split the performances between three actors (himself, the fiercely talented Hanna Cheek, and the young, admirable Hannah Timmons) and to add an original score to the proceedings (written by Radiotheatre and added onstage by Wes Shippee). The writing still pops--if you can say that about mushroom-capped cold sores or milky-thistled penises--as do the deliveries, especially Cheek's nervous and nervy portrayal of a "special" teacher on Parent/Teacher night. There's just more of a separation between actor and audience--which is odd, given the location: the highly intimate, spittle-will-fly Red Room; The Pumpkin Pie Show feels more like a showcase than a tour de force.

As a showcase, however, Amber Alert is outstanding, a conflagration of emotions delivered by an energetic cast. There aren't highs and lows in this show so much as heavens and hells, with hardly a moment of limbo in between. Without giving specifics away, wrestlers will knee-dive the stage; wives will all but caress the microphone; little boys will wistfully, tearfully dream of outer space; and troubled men will ball up within themselves--each scene brings a new series of sweet shudders, each character carries a wide variety of physical and tonal shifts. The unspeakable makes for thrilling theater, and Chapman's still got all the right words.

Friday, October 15, 2010

THEATER: Dramatis Personae

Photo/Richard Termine

There's a burnt-out window and shards of glass strewn all over Lucas's sleek bachelor pad, but Dramatis Personae opts not to explain it; instead, Ben (Gerardo Rodriguez) tells a story as he, Marla (Liza Fernandez), and Lucas (Felix Solis) tidy up. Ben's been inspired by a palimpsest of graffiti in a local bookstore's bathroom, particularly by the guy who simply writes "Boobies." "That guy I want to meet," he concludes. "Or create." In other words, Gonzalo Rodriguez Risco wants to give us the creative whimper, not the destructive bang, wants to catch the idea in action, and he aims to do it by crafting a literary ghost story in which three haunted writers--living in the terrorist-riddled 1990s Lima, Peru--face their own creations.

It's an interesting concept, but one that lacks dramatic weight: as Lucas puts it, "It's not a story. I'm just thinking out loud." And while Erik Pearson's direction is ravishing--he neatly casts Bobby Moreno and Laura Esposito as the characters within each writer's story; they pop up through beds, drop out of windows, and hang around creepily; they are everything (id, ego, superego) the writers are not--the actual process is more therapeutic than enthralling. (Ben adds, "Writing is cheaper than therapy.") What little subtext exists in what their creations might represent is quickly diminished by having in them calmly, rationally discuss it. A beautifully quirky thought like "When I die, I want to be cremated and stored in an unmarked container beside the coffee... So that sometimes people get confused and... Drink a little bit of me..." quickly becomes the mundane "I will not be remembered... Lucas will."

Pretty as that thinking may be, and well-delivered by Rodriguez and Solis, it never to leads to a confrontation. Ben is frustrated that Marla doesn't see him as more than a fuck-buddy, and jealous of the way she fawns over an oblivious--but more successful--Lucas, but he simply escapes into his fantasies. The same goes for Lucas, who feels he can only write by exploiting--killing anew--his dead brother, but that brother (Moreno) only appears to him as a glib mouthpiece, an ambivalent conscience, than as a needy specter. Marla speaks to the "Absolute control over the fate of whoever I create" philosophy, whereas Ben claims that his characters are "sneaky," but Risco is trapped by what Ben points out: "Things don't exist until you realize they're there." As the ultimate writer, Risco has realized everything, and he never loosens the reins. The occasional cleverness of his craft can be appreciated, but not its heart, not its lack of confrontation.

The longer the play goes on, the harder it is to shake its artificiality: the careful structure of writing meet-ups and hook-ups followed by revisionist writings (presented in monologue form), with the characters slowly spilling into the scenes. (Toward the end, Lucas even announces his idea of the perfect ending, and sure enough, those words are what close the play.) Dramatis Personae begins with such a promise of dramatic catastrophe, it's the mundane cleaning house that the audience ends up with.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

TV: Fringe

See, FOX? This is how good a sci-fi show can get when you don't cancel it midway through its first season, or shunt it around from timeslot to timeslot through a second season. Fringe has become, for me, appointment television, and you can read why over at Slant Magazine.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

THEATER: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Retelling the rise of Andrew Jackson, our nation's seventh president, as a rock musical is a daring choice--to be expected of writer Alex Timbers (of Les Freres Corbusier) and musician Michael Friedman (a genius with the Civilians)--and one that befits the "people's president," a man, played by the angsty Benjamin Walker, who wears tight tight jeans and talks about some serious serious shit. This is Andrew Fucking Jackson, but though the musical points out the dangers of all that populist energy--the genocidal relocation of Indian tribes, the constant Supreme Court censures, the outlandish conduct--Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson falls prey to that same erratic fervor.

The first half of the show (which runs without intermission) comes across with the exaggerated satire of Matt Stone and Trey Parker (both Cannibal! and South Park): when Jackson's mother dies of cholera, she is struck down with the sound of an arrow's twang; after the rest of his family dies, Injuns do a mock ballet. And just wait until the doily-wearing, high-pitched politicians--John Quincy Adams (Jeff Hiller) and Van Buren (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) stand out--come out with their evil laughs. These events are recklessly narrated too by a nerdy and gushingly hormonal Storyteller (Kristine Nielsen), who is detested by the cast, much like a device from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and later killed. (Into The Woods got there first.) The play cherishes its outlandish moments, too: when Jackson meets the woman who will be his wife, Rachel (Maria Elena Ramirez), the two sing about inappropriate metaphors, all while bleeding themselves (a medical cure back in the day) and then pouring the blood all over one another. Look at us, look at us, look at us, it shouts; change, change, change; we're different. Not so, however: there isn't a single thing here that Spring Awakening didn't do better, nor Rent before it.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is already packed full of significance and--in its populist, tea-party mania-- relevance, but the show always feels like it's reaching for laughs. It's not until the latter half of the play, once Jackson's on his way to office, that the excesses are purged from its system, revealing the a strong backbone of raging songs: one which details the removals of Indian tribes with the assistance of Black Fox (Bryce Pinkham), and his anthemic 1828 campaign song, "Better Off Dead," which keens for action. There's also a great song and dance that sums up the political chicanery by which Jackson lost the 1824 election--despite winning more popular and electoral votes than the other candidates.

It's a vivacious history lesson, one that earns the term it coins: "Emocracy." But it's an unwieldy play in need of a stronger director than Alex Timbers--after all, how can he be expected to fairly edit his own text? Jokes land all over the place, and even the charismatic Walker rarely connects with the audience--even when he jumps down and flirts with the front row. His voice has an absurd range, but within the show, he mainly sticks to squealing about the unfairness of the system and then whipping out a gun and threatening to do something about it. His wife dies, his presidency seems to falls apart, we don't ever see his re-election, and yet we still know very little about Jackson. Perhaps that's appropriate for our era of Celebrity Politics, in which populist candidates like Palin go largely unvetted and can't be figured out, but it makes for a bloodless night of theater.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

THEATER: Office Hours

Photo/Richard Termine

The once mandatory "Western Tradition" college course, which covers the classics from Homer to Shakespeare, is the subject of A. R. Gurney's Office Hours. Like that class, which taught students to think for themselves about how Plato's musings on evil might apply to a post-Hitler world, or helped them to see how Thucydides's writings on Athens vs. Sparta might be applied to a prideful U.S.'s rivalry with the USSR, Office Hours features a wide array of interesting morsels--most of which are lost in the sprawling distraction of the course itself: ten short vignettes, featuring a total of twenty-eight different students and teachers (played by an ensemble of six actors) in just over eighty minutes. Yes, there's at least one class, student, or teacher that will stand out--that's pretty much how definite college was for most of us--but most of it unaffectedly goes in one ear and out the other.

Gurney's too pat: each scene cleanly relates a canonical author with the office scene. And while his choice to set the action in the late '60s is a wise one--there's a very active, rebellious student population (not to mention, to designer Jessica Pabst's delight, a stylish one)--it goes largely untapped by director Jim Simpson and his cast, save for a few awkward references sexual harassment. Here's a stubbornly straightforward example: Angelina (Katherine Folk-Sullivan), the only Italian-speaking professor in the English department, loves Dante. So much, in fact, that she winds up giving a new teacher, Betsy (Louiza Collins), a first-hand lesson as she carries on an affair with Lenny (John Russo) in front of her. They're the tortured lovers, Paolo and Francesca, and because Gurney knows most of us aren't scholars of The Inferno, he is forced to have Angelina awkwardly explain the connection to us.

The same thing happens again and again: an angry former student, Ross (Tommy Crawford), confronts the teacher (Andy Gershenzon) whose failing mark forced him to go to Vietnam, which is interesting, albeit too much of a hastily drawn to sketch to be convincingly acted. A few moments later, though, another teacher (Turna Mete) walks in--quoting liberally from her lessons, as she is wont to do--and neatly resolves the situation by pointing out that Ross doesn't need to study King Lear: he's already living that life. (To be fair, Gurney's absurd resolution to the scene scores a few points for being ballsy.) These connections aren't just stifling, they feel cheap, especially since these great works have been liberally plundered in far more depth and to far greater effect. Admittedly, Gurney's not pretending to stoop to anything other than comedy--but he's thwarted there, too, since he spends so much of each scene giving a miniature lecture. (For instance, a teacher accuses her student of plagiarizing her essay on Aeschylus, but doesn't mind as their academic trial will resemble that of The Eumenides.)

Do the few outstanding scenes balance an otherwise slight evening of theater? Not entirely. The best--and not incidentally the least modeled of the set--follows a gay professor of St. Augustine who is forced to inform an gay student of his that he fears to be his mentor in anything other than a professional setting, lest he succumb to hormones of his own; it's a surprising, heartfelt scene that reminds us what the Bats--the resident ensemble of actors at the Flea--are capable of doing when the material provides them with the chance to do so. Gurney's Office Hours has tackled the Great Big Ideas, but it has floundered in trying to find them purchase on such tightly scripted comparisons and loosely comic ground.

[N.B. Like it or hate it, Office Hours is a bit of a showcase piece for the Bats, as each actor gets the opportunity to play at least three different characters--though some are harder to tell apart than others. In that fashion, the show actually has two rotating casts of six Bats; this review is based on the performances of the HOMER CAST. The DANTE CAST includes Bjorn Dupaty, Wilton Yeung, Maren Langdon, Holly Chou, Betsy Lippitt, and Raul Sigmund Julia, but otherwise uses the same script and set.]

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

THEATER: microcrisis

Photo/Web Begole

Michael Lew's microcrisis begins with an honest plea from Acquah (the always welcome William Jackson Harper), a small Ghanian business owner looking to borrow 200 Cedi (about $120) for his burgeoning cellular phone service. (He sublets his expensive phones, which have monthly plans, to local villagers who pay him for each call.) He is paired up with an equally earnest American intern, Lydia (Lauren Hines), who quotes directly from Citizen Trust's brochure as she explains how their non-profit microloans work (with only 2% interest for operating costs). It's an important scene, devoid of greed and full of laughs, courtesy of Acquah's garrulous humor--"It is a joke," he frequently howls--but mainly because it sets the scene for all the perversion that follows in the wake of Mr. Bennett (a magnificent, Rahm Emanuel-like Alfredo Narciso). It's not long before the naive Lydia is being wooed by the corruption of Bennett's "money bomb" distractions (to say nothing of the constant Klonopin and Lunesta). It is a joke: the kind that's funny both because it's true and because it's so heavily exaggerated, as Lew and director Ralph B. Pena stage a new financial crisis.

Don't be fooled by the unibrowed, bacned, insecure securities rater for Moody's (Jackie Chung), nor by the choreographed movements of Frankfurt (Harper), the racquetball-loving Charmain of the New York Fed. Try not to laugh too much at the slovenly teen genius, Randy (David Gelles, deftly channeling Justin Long) and his emotionally glitchy loan-making CPU (Chung). Understand that while this may be the sort of show that takes a '60s style dance break around a craps table in Monaco, it does so purely because Lew knows exactly what he's talking about--if his characters were any less distorted, the audience members might sniff out Goldman Sachs and rush the stage. The foundations of Lew's work are as solid as the safety-deposit-box walls of Clint Ramos's set, which swing in and out to reveal the various back rooms in which Bennett begins to deregulate his bank, leverage his money, turn the loans into CDOs that he resells as investments to the lenders, and bumps the interest rates up to 12 and eventually 30 percent.

There is, however, too much filling. Lew gets carried away with his juvenalia, and while the multi-cast ensemble is talented enough to keep the manic inflation in check, the end of microcrisis lacks a serious leg on which to stand up for victims like public-school teacher Mrs. Chavez (Socorro Santiago). The nastier bits of fallout still work, and there's one hell of a final scene, but it doesn't fire on all cylinders. Think of it as the lovechild of Aaron Sorkin and Michael Moore: rapid-fire stunts that nonetheless get the efficiently caustic message across. And while greed may not be good, microcrisis's satire of it is at least entertaining.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

THEATER: Mrs. Warren's Profession

One of the safest, most boring revivals ever, Doug Hughes's stab at Mrs. Warren's Profession (or should I say "stabbing of") makes a better argument for director's theater than anything Ivo von Hove has ever done. After all, whether or not you liked Hove's version of The Little Foxes, at least you'd feel something, which is far from true about Hughes's production. With shows like this on its schedule--Pygmalion wasn't much better--it's no wonder that Roundabout aims for star-studded casts--how else to foist something so unimaginative on Broadway than to use Cherry Jones as bait? It hardly serves even an educational purpose, especially since the sight-lines--especially from house-right--and the struggling accents mask so much of George Bernard Shaw's writing, leaving behind only the shrill cries of the most melodramatic of moments.

Sally Hawkins and Cherry Jones do make a fairly good team as the young, studious Vivie Warren and her loose--literally--mother, Kitty, and their reconciliation in Act II serves as a nice counterweight for their big throw-down in Act IV. There's some nice mugging from Mark Harelik, too, who plays Sir George Crofts, Kitty's unscrupulous business partner. But these stand out only against the blandness of Mr. Praed (Edward Hibbert) and Reverend Samuel Gardner (Michael Siberry), personifications of dead air, and the cardboard motives of pretty much everyone in the play, especially Frank Gardner, who is wooing Vivie for her money--something all too obvious from the lack of chemistry, emotion, or anything resembling craft exuding from Adam Driver (who was equally terrible a few years back in The Retributionists).

Nor is Mrs. Warren's Profession a play that can handle slight measures--like Scott Pask's awfully cheap-looking exteriors and optically unnerving interiors. It has not aged well, not simply on account of the lethargic pace, but because the subject material--disapproving daughter discovers her mother is an international madame--is so morally dated. At least Gypsy threw in some pizazz and attempted to unpack a few emotions in the mother-daughter relationship; Shaw's play expects the "taboo" subject to be controversial enough to carry the play. It's not, and that makes the lengthy monologues in which character's justify and condemn the sex trade all the more tedious.

Compared to the modernized visions of Brief Encounters or Sunday in the Park with George (Roundabout does well with imports, apparently), it's hard to call Mrs. Warren's Profession anything other than a lazy mess. For a good time, don't call this number.

Short-a-Day: Chris Adrian's "The Warm Fuzzies"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, Sept. 27, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 87.

There was a time, too, before they made albums or went on tours or appeared in Handycam videos produced and directed by their Aunt Jean, which aired (rather late at night) on the community cable channel and then, eventually, on Samaritan TV, when Molly liked being in the band, and liked being in the family....  Then one morning two months ago, she had woken up to find that the shine had gone off everything. It was a conversion as sudden as the one her parents had suffered. She had come to breakfast feeling unwell but not sick, and was puzzling over how it was different to feel like something was not right with you and yet feel sure you were in perfect health....
Oh, that's sneaky cool: talk about religion through the suddenly, strangely unblinded eyes of a young, maturing girl, one of six or seven children in the Carter Family. And make the setting a family band, in which things are communicated through music and dance, rather than straight language. And add in some sexual stuff, too, mainly with the latest foster child to be momentarily adopted into their lives, a young, scarred black boy named Peabo. Adrian has so much ammunition that he prevents his story from seeming trite, predictable, or done-before, and he loads up sentences--like the ones above--with lots of clever little details that only seem like tangents at first but in actually strengthen the setting. The word choice is particularly good--look at the use of "suffered" to describe a religious conversion; look how the "band" and the "family" are conflated. Best of all, Molly has a sarcastic inner voice, which helps Adrian show a crisis and a struggle in faith, rather than a simple rebellion or dismissal of it. Molly is trying to fit in . . . she's just having more and more trouble doing so.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Short-a-Day: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "Birdsong"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, Sept. 20, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 93.

This is such a structurally tight story, with such lovely flourishes, that I don't mind not totally understanding the protagonist. How much are we really expected to understand another person, in any case? What stands out is how close Adichie comes to helping the reader understand what it's like to be a woman who is having an affair with a married man, and moreover, to be doing so in Lagos, Nigeria, where being an independent woman in that sort of relationship is apparently an even bigger issue. And she does so in very neat steps, jumping from the present--in which the protagonist sits in a car, watching an expensive-looking woman who happens to be looking at her. "She was the kind of woman I imagined my lover's wife was, a woman for whom things were done." From there, the story follows her memories as she establishes--on her own terms--the social distance between her and the people around her, from the way her co-worker Chikwado abases herself at work for the men to the way her lover's chauffeur scorns her, and the waiter ignores her. She is not a woman for whom things are done, in other words, but a woman who happens to be with a man for whom things are done, and that's a huge difference.

Friday, October 01, 2010

THEATER: A Bright New Boise

Photo/Stephen Taylor 

In Samuel D. Hunter's previous play, Jack's Precious Moment, a genuine religious struggle was lost amid an exaggerated reality and an overly comic tone. His latest, A Bright New Boise, is all the more arresting, given its grounding in the mundane and ho-hum. Fifty-something Will (the tremendous Andrew Garman) is praying ("Now. Now. Now.") before an interview with the high-strung Pauline (Danielle Slavick): why is he so eager to get a minimum-wage, part-time employment at the Hobby Lobby (a big-box craft supply store)? It soon comes out that he's actually the father of fellow employee Alex (Matt Farabee), with whom he hopes to reconnect so that he has something to live for, since his prayers for the Rapture to come burn his ugly world away have gone unanswered: "Without God, all I am is a terrible father who lives in his car and works at Hobby Lobby--there has to be something more."

Davis McCallum's naturalistic approach works exceedingly well here, especially on Jason Simms's picture-perfect break-room set. Hobby Lobby promotional videos blare at all hours on the television--except for when the satellite feeds cross and accidentally show graphic surgical footage instead--and the microwave  makes loud clunking noises as it heats up Will's pathetic Chef Boyardee lunch. The Wal-Mart-greeter-like outfits and abstractly chippy corridor only re-enforce the "cheer" these workers have, as does Pauline's aggressively work-focused attitude, a sort of anti-faith-faith that is meant to keep her too busy to think about the quality of her life. Surely there must be more.

It's a cold, calculating look at the reasons for faith, but in a warm, seriocomic way that takes its characters seriously enough to laugh with them, not at them. (It's in many ways the sort of play you'd expect Neil LaBute. albeit a nicer version, to have written.) Nor is it dismissive of anyone's views: Leroy (John Patrick Doherty), Alex's foster brother and the sort of brash artist who sets out to "deliberately make you uncomfortable," is allowed to see Will's faith as nonsense, but that doesn't make it so. Coworker Anna (Sarah Nina Hayon) has a rough past of her own, but she uses her Lutheran faith as a tool, not a crutch. And though Alex is surrounded by all these views, he's developed one of his own, creating horrible rape-and-kidnapping stories about his past in order to gin up sympathy for what he sees as a bleak and hopeless future.

They joke, they smile, and they hurt, and they do it so sincerely that A Bright New Boise will break your heart. Over the course of these two hours, Will is given chance after chance to step away from his negative choices and to live in the present, rather than to desperately await the future. His cult-like church has been dissolved (pending the criminal investigation of its pastor), there's a hint of romance between him and Anna, there's an on-again-off-again relationship with his temperamental son, and even Leroy--grudgingly--is willing to give him a chance to make things right, and yet he is too invested in his memories, in his choices, to truly make a fresh start. The tragedy of Will's life is that there is more, but to embrace it, he must accept that his faith must be less.

For we in the audience, however, there is no such crisis of faith: we can accept, conscience clear and free, that A Bright New Boise is nothing less than a good, challenging play.

Short-a-Day: Wells Towers's "The Landlord"

[One of The New Yorker's 20 Under 40]

Originally published in The New Yorker, Sept. 13, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 19.

Like the protagonist, landlord Coates Pruitt, this story is on its way to bankruptcy. Like most published authors, Towers is able to write coherently enough, but only a sentence by sentence basis: there's no clear train of thought linking the units of this story together. It begins on a comic note, describing Pruitt and his tenants: "Armando lives in one of the worst properties I own, an apartment complex so rife with mold and vermin that, when I sent a man to clean a vacant unit there, he developed an eye infection that didn't clear up for a month." It then switches to a serious note, dealing with a pending road trip for two of his laborers, Todd and Jason: "Todd is in his sixties, and he is a venomous human being. he is angry that I don't feel the same bile toward his co-workers or my tenants that he does. He is angry that, owing to the frailty of his liver and esophagus, he has only a couple of dozen good drunks left in him, and he must spend them wisely." The story then flips, yet again, to Coates's interactions with his daughter, Rhoda, who, being an artist, is able to make the case for this story: "'But in a broader sense it's about our collective lack of integrity and total fucking childishness in the wake of the financial crisis, i.e., the national epidemic of petulance and bratty outrage over the fact that poor people don't get to buy castles on credit anymore, that execs don't get G.D.P.-size bonuses, that not just any housewife with a real-estate license gets to be a millionaire, and that you can't stick a chopstick in a dog turd and sell it at Gagosian for the price of a yacht.'"