Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Recent Theater

For some reason, I had envisioned writing many blog posts in October... why I expected this, I have no idea. Sure, I went part-time at my day job (at least for the first two weeks of October; after that, we had a big job come in that kept me there pretty much all day during the last two weeks). And Peculiar Works was not technically in production this month (there's the master class we teach for Trinity/LaMaMa, of course, and the ghost tours we helped organize and cast for the Merchant's House Museum—but those don't really count). And, yes, I had rewriting to do on my play, Floydada, for the NYFA Fellows application that was due yesterday. And plays to see—there are always loads of plays to see, of course. But apart from that, what did I do with free time?

I'm such a slacker.

Anyway, here are a few thoughts some of the theater we saw in the second half of October:

The Playboy of the Western World
At some point early in The Pearl Theatre's very good revival of this most famous of J.M. Synge's plays, it occurred to me that I don't much care for The Playboy. I'm not entirely sure what brought me to this realization: the acting is fine to pretty good; the sets, lights and costumes are well-executed; and director J.R. Sullivan has a very light touch that complements Synge's humor well. But for some reason, the story just wasn't engaging me; I was interested in what was going on... but only mildly interested. It's not that the plot isn't intriguing: a mysterious stranger, on the run for murdering his father, shows up in a rural tavern just before closing and begs a room and a job of the lonely woman who runs it; almost immediately the entire village is abuzz about the man and he becomes something of a celebrity; then his father—who was not quite dead, you see—shows up, having tracked down his son so that he can be punished for his crime. It sounds like pretty compelling stuff, really. And yet, I was often distracted by ancillary activities on stage. For instance, I found myself thinking at one point: "They've pouring porter from a pitcher. Well, that makes sense, in a mid-nineteenth century, rural town in Ireland; I can see where they wouldn't have a tap. I wonder how long before porter would go flat in a pitcher? They can't have made it in that pitcher, of course; they'd make it in barrels and then tap the porter into the pitcher. Would they make their own porter or buy it from someone? If Synge were writing this play today, they'd probably be drinking stout. Which is a kind of porter. Is stout harder to make than porter? Maybe stout wouldn't work as well in a pitcher." I had similar thought processes about women running around barefoot while men wore jackets; suspender buttons on a pair of pants that worked as belt loops; and how, as technically well-appointed as the Pearl's new digs are in the basement at City Center, the play might have fit better in their old Theatre 80 St. Marks proscenium. The irony of all this is that I really do think it's a good revival. I just don't imagine I'll be going to see The Playboy again any time soon.

The Assember Dilator
31 Down Radio Theater has one of the more original aesthetics of any company working downtown. The Assember Dilator (which recently closed at PS 122) combines intriguing set design and imagery, an extremely rich aural soundscape, and a deceptively simple performance style to create a fascinating and disturbing science fiction thriller. It follows two characters: a scientist who is consumed with testing his new x-ray vision drug on himself and his assistant who obsessively joins him in the twisted medical trial. It's a familiar story about the nature of addiction and the loss of humanity it ultimately brings about, but the 31 Down artists have pared away all of the non-essential elements and have exaggerated and amplified (sometimes literally) what remains into a unique performance: you don't just watch this production, you experience it completely.

My only complaint about the evening was completely beyond the artists' control: PS 122 isn't giving out programs in an effort to be more green. I don't mind sharing or even giving back a simple one-page cast list at the end of the night but it's a disservice to the artists to ask the audience to visit your website if we want to know who's in the play—especially since some of us will have to wait until we get home to do it (not everyone has a iPhone).

There might be the kernel a good idea somewhere in this mess but Jay Bernzweig hasn't found it. That didn't seem to bother the sizable audience at the Soho Playhouse on the night we saw this very dumb play in which one conjoined twin comes out to his brother just moments before they are to propose to their girlfriend: they were all laughing uproariously at the most banal jokes and sight gags virtually from the first minute. Catherine said it reminded her a little of the silly British sex farces that were so popular 20 or so years ago; I think that's being kind to this piece (or slighting the comic genius of Natalie Needs a Nightie). Ninety-nine percent of the dialogue is ham-handed double-entendres and sophomoric references to sexual practices and physiology (the guys have three testicles but share a penis—that got a big laugh every time it came up*); the remaining percent was one actually funny joke that really isn't all that funny out of context (I've tried a few times to write it out here and it just takes too long to explain—you had to be there, as they say... not that I'm recommending that). The actors do the best they can with what they've got—for the most part, they just schtick it up; the rest of the audience thought they were absolutely hilarious so who am I to argue? The direction is... well, I guess it's better than the script; it's certainly no worse.

*Believe it or not, that's as good a joke as any we heard all night... and I wasn't actually trying to make it.

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