Wednesday, September 23, 2009

In the Daylight (Vital Theatre)

In the Daylight
Vital Theatre Company
September 17, 2009
Tony Glazer (writer)
John Gould Rubin (director)

From the audience, the vertiginous angle of the stark white set looks like the a film-noir still in negative. Christopher Barreca's design is one of the coolest in town. Too bad In the Daylight, the show it sets the stage for, doesn't measure up. Playwright Tony Glazer tries on styles, tones, and genres like clothes, but he can't find the look he's going for.

Daylight starts out as a vicious modern drama that echoes Greek tragedy. Think Orestes: a louche son returns to his family estate (here a Jersey McMansion) where his mom and sis bicker over a terrible secret. Ashley Austin Morris, as a bumpkin with her own secret, applies lessons learned from Charles Busch to create a surreal intrusion into the realistic drama. But the show scuds sideways under John Gould Rubin's direction: halfway in, who knows what the play's really about? That fact plus the show's brevity equal valid reasons to cut the intermission.

The second-act twists work their own satisfaction, in the boulevard tradition of Agatha Christie stage adaptations. But I'd guess that Glazer had hoped to write a modern noir: his spiffy dialogue, femmes fatale, and late-inning twists suggest savage and cynical pleasure. Still, if that's the case, why does so much of Daylight follow Aunt Agatha's pattern—including a storm cutting the power and an exposition-laden climax? Glazer over-reaches by adding a sense of fatalism, when he's simply written a potboiler. In the Daylight is passably entertaining, but it's also pretty silly.


In the Daylight plays at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre (2162 Broadway, betw. 76th and 77th), closing on October 5. Tickets?

photo: Gili Getz

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side (Theater 80)

The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side
Theater 80
September 13, 2009
Derek Ahonen (writer/director)

One of the many surprises about Derek Ahonen's Pied Pipers is how traditional it is. Artists generally design a work's structure to mirror its content. But this tale of tribalist radicals is a shaggy melodrama that your grandmother could follow happily, as long as she's okay with a splash of youthful nudity. But what makes Pied Pipers a true pleasure is how its characters are radicals, its structure is conservative, and its moral substance is liberal—that is, non-judgmental.

This open-minded approach to character is Ahonen's strength (not incidentally, it's also the mission of his company, The Amoralists). His script's an actor's dream: all six roles mingle good and bad attributes, which get displayed through their actions and interactions. The quartet of titular hippies are lovely goofballs: idealistic but sanctimonious, they'd be parodies of knee-jerk radicals if they weren't so lovingly portrayed. Tastes probably vary, but I especially enjoyed Sarah Lemp's understated perf as the most mature (relatively) of the Pipers.

Like most melodrama, Pied Pipers' plot could be tighter. The second act starts to drift till a new character arrives to raise the stakes. And an out-of-nowhere epiphany helps to resolve one Piper's loss of faith. These flaws do feel a little cheap, but only in retrospect. In the moment, they're all part of a lovely, bittersweet play. Ahonen's clearly fond of his little tribe, and so, it seems, is everyone who sees this show. The Amoralists aren't just a company worth following (and I definitely will). They've created a play that deserves revivals in dozens of small theaters in hip neighborhoods across the country.


The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side plays at Theater 80 (80 St. Mark's Place., betw. First and Second), closing on October 5. Tickets?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Oohrah! (Atlantic Stage 2)

Atlantic Stage 2
September 11, 2009
Bekah Brunstetter (writer)
Evan Cabnet (director)

I'm thrilled to see a new playwright's work onstage. The play, by new (to me) playwright Bekah Brunstetter, has a naturalistic, Chekhovian dramaturgy that demonstrates compassion and objectivity. Her dialogue is specific to place, time, milieu and personality, an invisible style that's a rare and valuable talent. And she gets structure: she's got a subplot that's as substantial as the main plot without overwhelming it.

Brunstetter uses that craft to depict the homefront during the Bush Wars: an officer's return to civvies and a handsome young man's hunger to join up despite his asthma. A ode to work, Oohrah! shows how service gives these men purpose. The actors in the Atlantic's production grab the opportunity to play such rich characters. Darren Goldstein, as the demobbed captain, stands out in a uniformly good company, showing the quiet physical confidence of a career soldier and the inadmissible anxiety of a warrior during peacetime.

But the play's ragged thread is that it doesn't portray women's sacrifice with the same keenness. It suggests that their dutiful sacrifice doesn't carry the same sense of fulfillment that the men's does. But the final scene, which brings together the play's three female characters, lacks the power of the previous two scenes of masculine fortitude. This scene peters out, and so does the play. This production is also hampered by merely-serviceable direction from Evan Cabnet, who overindulges in Brunstetter's only substantial flaw, a generic fondness for Southern eccentricity.

Still, Oohrah!'s value is its honesty in approaching a question that too many dismiss out-of-hand: why men (and women) serve in the military, especially right now. Brunstetter, in possession of intelligence and craft, offers an answer.


Oohrah! plays at Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16th St., betw. Eighth & Ninth), closing on September 27. Tickets?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Bereaved (The Wild Project)

The Bereaved
The Wild Project
September 3, 2009
Thomas Bradshaw (writer)
May Adrales (director)

Thomas Bradshaw has established bona fides as an anarchist pitted against liberal shibboleths, and his latest piece happily continues the savagery. The middle-class family of The Bereaved may have bleeding hearts, but they pump hot blood, not milk. The play's engine revs up when a coke-related incident hospitalizes the matriarch: from her deathbed, she insists her husband marry her best friend, lest her death leave the family destitute. This wish frees his and his son's most reckless impulses and leads to deeply kinky sex and drug dealing to students (among other transgressive pleasures).

It's hard to tell whether Bradshaw celebrates this emancipation from convention or condemns it, but he definitely enjoys it. A “proper” play would see the mother recover and work to re-impose order (successfully or not). But this isn't a proper play. It's great that the show moves forward, but it pretty obviously doesn't have a destination in mind. Instead, Bradshaw improvises plot twists until he ends the show more or less arbitrarily. Nobody learns anything—that's for squares—or has any other arc of development.

But this dramaturgical flaw is covered by director May Adrales by keeping the momentum at full throttle. Gutsy performances by the actors help too: nearly everyone gets naked at some point, and they simulate sex with special enthusiasm—whereas drug use is wickedly performed with all the mundanity of drinking water. Bradshaw and company offer a grand, cathartic release by setting free the perversity of modern American liberals.


The Bereaved plays at the Wild Project (195 E. Third St., betw. A & B), closing on September 26. Tickets?