Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Week in Theater

Saviana Stanescu's Aliens with Extraordinary Skills is not science fiction: it's a quite enjoyable, quirky play about a young woman, Nadia—a clown from Moldova who inadvertently winds up an illegal alien in the United States—and the people she befriends here. Much of the humor—and there's a lot of well-placed humor—comes from seeing our country and our pop culture through the eyes of a naif. Director Tea Alagic has done a wonderful job with this production: it moves rapidly and has a great energy. The cast is strong and endearing, especially Natalia Payne as the impish Nadia. There's no deep insight into the immigrant experience here: it's just a fun and entertaining night out.

The humor in A Body of Water by Lee Blessing is much darker and a little discomfiting. The two main characters, very nicely played by Christine Lahti and Michael Cristofer, have awakened in a house in the woods, surrounded on three sides by a beautiful lake... with no memories of each other or even of their own names. Do they live here? Are they a couple or complete strangers? How did they get here? The arrival of a young woman (a mercurial Laura Odeh) only deepens the mystery—is she their daughter? their caregiver? their guard? Each time I thought one question was being answered, something would happen to cast doubt on that answer. The production is smoothly directed by Maria Mileaf with yet another set by Neil Patel (he's done at least 3 of the last 6 shows I've seen this month: he's pretty good, but maybe we should give someone else a chance...). Catherine and I weren't really sure what point Blessing is making with this play—the marketing materials reference "the slippery nature of reality and conviction," which is sufficiently vague... and yet somehow appropriate for what we saw. It reminded me a little of Harold Pinter's early plays—The Dumb Waiter, for instance—and what makes them still intriguing: like the characters we're watching, we recognize the world but aren't quite sure how much of what we're seeing is reality and how much is is someone's delusion. It certainly provided Catherine and me with a lively discussion for our walk home (which, from 59 E 59, is over 50 blocks... we really love walking in NYC!).

Outside Inn is the first US production by International Culture Lab, a company dedicated to promoting international collaborations between artists. The play, by Austrian writer Andreas Jungwirth, offers a fragmented portrait of two married couples who find different yet overlapping intersections in all of their lives that ultimately link back to the same man: a powerful businessman, Rudolf Kolowsky. I liked how Jungwirth allowed details about the characters and their intertwined lives to trickle out during the course of the play: a name dropped early on gains more and more significance each time it recurs throughout the evening; an event that we witness is out of context until we hear another character's story. Texts in German and English—sentence fragments that often foreshadow dialogue or plot points—are projected over the actors heads; they effectively heighten the story's intrigue, although once or twice I missed something an actor did onstage while I was reading. I don't know the original German, of course, but the translation—by our friend, Gabrielle Schaffer—works well and plays quite naturally. Melanie Dreyer's direction keeps the action moving and I liked the self-conscious theatricality in her production: it worked well with Jungwirth's script. The four actors all do a very good job—in both languages—and the set by Stephanie Mayer-Staley nicely and subtly reinforces the metphors of the play.

To Be or Not To Be, Nick Whitby's theatricalized version of the Ernst Lubitsch 1942 film: this is the kind of production that is just begging for the three-word review, "Not to be." I can't imagine why Manhattan Theatre Club chose this script: even by the most crassly commercial, underestimating-the-intelligence-of-the-audience standards, it's badly written and not in the least funny. Unfortunately, this has mistake been compounded by hiring a director who clearly has no gift whatsoever for the nuance of classic screwball comedy: the timing of this production is so miserable that punchlines fail that ought to at least rate a chuckle. There are a few vintage film projections used to cover set changes—badly: why someone thought we needed footage of a car driving through a European city to establish that we're going to another location when the last scene ended with someone saying, "I'm going to such-and-such-place," I can't imagine. Anna Louizos' set is unnecesarily complicated, even by Broadway standards: I wouldn't be surprised if they couldn't have cut 10 minutes off the running time by cutting 50% of the set budget. And the poor actors—who, in fairness to them, are not at all cast well—are boring; even Jan Maxwell, who I understand is usually very good in this sort of role, is pretty dull here. I know that the production was plagued by last minute cast changes; it may be unrelated... but I don't think so.

Aliens with Extraordinary Skills photo by Carol Rosegg.

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