Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Last Weekend On Stage

There are differences between "uptown" theater (Broadway, most Off Broadway and the wannabe showcases) and "downtown" theater (a few Off Broadway companies and most of the resident companies whose work I regularly enjoy) that have little to do with geography. I usually label something as uptown when I mean commercial—big budgets, big names, big ticket prices—while downtown for me covers... well, pretty much everything else, really. The work downtown might be experimental but it might not be; it could be presented in a theater below 14th Street in Manhattan or it could be in Queens or Brooklyn or the Bronx; there could be a star actor in the cast but not very often (unless it's a downtown star like David Greenspan); there might be a big budget... well, if it's The Wooster Group, there's almost certainly at least a decent-sized budget—the rest of us, not so much. I prefer going to work performed below 14th, of course, but that probably has as much to do with my own innate laziness as with anything else: those productions are within walking distance of home. This weekend, I got to sample a little bit of both worlds.

The uptown production was Craig Lucas' A Prayer for My Enemy at Playwrights Horizon. I have to say that my expectations were not high: my impression of Lucas is that he writes fairly conventional plays about upper middle-class white people. I know that my belief is unfair: Prelude to a Kiss is the only full-length play of his that I have actually seen, and I attended a Naked Angels benefit for Amnesty International in 1991 in which he had a short play (which did nothing to change my opinion). In Prayer, Lucas attempts to break free of his self-imposed confines: it's a fairly conventional play about working-class white people. Actually, it's a decent enough play that interweaves the stories of an upstate New York family whose eldest son has enlisted to serve in Iraq with a woman approaching middle age who returns home from Manhattan to care for her elderly mother. The intersection of these two stories is intriguing and emotionally-charged but not the surprise that I think Lucas intended; with more commercial works, while I may not anticipate every detail of the plot, I spend a good portion of the play awaiting the inevitable bombshell that changes the characters and their worlds irrevocably. That said, I was never bored during the play—even through the characters' frequent direct-address interruptions, so that we'd know "what they really think"—and the actors all do an excellent job, especially Victoria Clark as the dutiful daughter. Director Bartlett Sher keeps everything moving at a nice pace and the minimal design elements keep the focus where it should be for this play: on the stories we're watching. If there are few revelations in this production, there are also few disappointments (other than the subtextual direct-address—please stop doing that and let the actors do their jobs).

Even though Catherine is the Dixon Place development director and even though Ellie, Leslie and the gang have been have been programming performances at 161 Chrystie Street for a few weeks now, Sunday was my first real opportunity to see the new theater (I'd been there numerous times during various construction stages). Unfinished though it is—they're still waiting for the sound system and audience risers that the City of New York bought for them to be delivered, the offices and cabaret space are pretty bare, and there are no couches or armchairs in the theater yet (and we all know that no location will ever be Dixon Place without them)—it's an amazing performance space (and quite possibly the most comfortable audience chairs below 14th Street). The occasion for my visit was Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, the anti-consumerism movement's equivalent of a tent revival. Like any good revival, much of the show is devoted to ministering through music—and the songs here are just as fervently felt and the performers just as skillful as their spiritual counterparts, while the lyrics replace Satan with Wal-Mart, Starbucks and Disney. During the 90-minute service, individuals share their personal testimonies, they celebrate the triumphs and bemoan the setbacks for the faithful in current events (the senseless death of Jdimytai Damour at a Wal-Mart on Black Friday, in particular), and Billy preaches a brief sermon.

I've seen Bill many times over the past 10 years but apart from last year's documentary, What Would Jesus Buy?, it had been a while since I'd seen him live. The thing that stands out most to me about the Church of Stop Shopping is that it's incredibly smart and it assumes that the audience is equally smart. We know that Bill is being funny but we also know that he's absolutely serious: consumerism is not the way to happiness and, in fact, has been a major contributor to the financial problems we now face in the United States. He knows that we want to be entertained but that we are also just as passionate about (or at least more than a little interested in) how we as individuals can make a difference. Bill is taking a break for the holidays but will be back at Dixon Place in January and performing around the country in 2009; if you can't get to a performance, I highly recommend the film (available on Netflix) and guarantee it will affect, if not out-and-out change, the way you think about shopping.

Prayer for My Enemy photo by Joan Marcus; Reverend Billy photo from

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