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by Lucy Komisar
Contents: December 1, 1999:
Jason Butler Karner and Seana Kofoed in Shelagh Stephenson's examination of scientific morality. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
(1))"An Experiment with an Air Pump " at the Manhattan Theatre Club
(2))"The Country Club" by Drama Dept. at Greenwich House
(3))"The Price" at Royale Theatre
(4))"Give Me Your Answer, Do" by Roundabout at Gramercy Theatre
(5))"Fuddy Meers" by Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center
(6))"The Balcony" at The Jean Cocteau Repertory at Bouwerie Lane
An Experiment with an Air PumpShelagh Stephenson weaves a rich tapestry of ideas in this intriguing play about science and morality. How much attention do scientists pay to the ethical consequences of their investigations? Do they step over the line to knowingly inflict harm in the service of knowledge? And shouldn't this be a concern at a time when new technologies are taking us fast into a world of unknown effects?
By Shelagh Stephenson, directed by Doug Hughes
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club
City Center, 151 West 55 St.
Opened October 26, 1999
Closes December 12, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 30, 1999
The title comes from "An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump," which was painted by Joseph Wright in 1767-8 and hangs in the National Gallery. To show that life couldn't exist in a vacuum, a scientist has put a bird in a glass globe, pumped out air, and as the bird flails and suffocates, is about to restore air to revive it. His aides and family watch.
Those figures come vibrantly to life (one of the daughters is appalled) in Stephenson's play. The theme is made more prescient by shifting the scenes between 1799 and 1999, both moments at the end of a century that seemed primed for progress. The action occurs in the Newcastle, England, mansion of Dr. Joseph Fenwick (Daniel Gerroll) and his family and two hundred years later in the same home inhabited by Ellen (Linda Emond) and her husband, Tom (Gerroll).
The 18th century scientist's home is a wonderful accoutered with cases of skulls and butterflies and books, a hanging skeleton, stuffed animals, and candles. (John Lee Beatty designed the set.) The dining room features a long, gleaming wood table. Outside through large windows, are blue skies or chill clouds.
It's a time of political ferment -- the American and French Revolutions have occurred -- and of industrial change ushered in by the 1781 invention of the steam engine. There's a stone-throwing mob outside the Fenwicks' home. The masses are revolting, though protests against English autocracy would not lead to the reform laws of 1832 until three decades later. And Joseph complains, "They're not revolutionaries; they want cheaper fish, not to take over the market."
Joseph is a forward-thinking scientist seeking a radical vision for the new century. He thinks science is linked with democracy, that "we'll vote the monarchy out of existence."
Peter Mark Roget (Christopher Duva), his young aide, is fascinated with words and speaks in long lists of synonyms. (He published the thesaurus after his medical career.) Another young doctor, Thomas Armstrong (Jason Butler Harner) cares for nothing but advancing science and defends the practices of robbing graves to get cadavers to study anatomy.
The couple's daughters, Harriet (Ana Reeder) and Maria (Clea Lewis), are dressed for a play as Britannia (with velvet sash and spear) and Arcadia (Little Bo Peep), the first representing an empire based on industry, science, wealth and reason, the other pastoral innocence.
There's a strong subtext about women. Maria boasts to Roget and Armstrong, "I'm the quiet one, gentleman, which is why I have a fiance and Harriet does not." Harriet rages. Joseph's wife Susannah (Emond), a poet and student of literature, turns her edgy irritation into sarcastic, witty quips, but is furious that Joseph patronizes her and doesn't take her seriously.
In an astonishing riff on the nature of marriage for men and women, she admits that she was a passive young woman waiting to be loved. "I loved you because you loved me," she tells him. "What else did I have to go on?" He was sexually enthralled by her and admits "The less you said, the easier it was to invent you." He loved her body, but not her mind or spirit.
The bird in the story is the maid, Isobel Bridie (Seana Kofoed), a frightened, waif-like young Scottish woman with a hunchback and limp who knows 27 words for servant. She embodies pain and intelligence. When the daughters dress her as a sheep for their play, Kofoed exudes humiliation with every plaintive look and gesture.
In modern times, Stephenson cleverly reverses the couples. Ellen is the scientist and Tom a redundant English professor, though she's a lot more sympathetic to his sensitivities than was Joseph toward Susannah. Tom is concerned about the ethnical implications of a human genome project Ellen is considering joining.
The play moves in a discursive manner. Sometimes the very rich, textured layers seem to unfocused, wandering and we wait to see the loose ends tied. There are pointed comic political moments. Joseph complains, "Children sleep in the streets and we fund a family of Germans who deign to wave at us." The local 20th century government is considering a tourist project to pay ex-miners to go down to the pits and pretend to be miners. Phil (Harner), an electrician, says the only things he doesn't believe in are acupuncture and the Tory party.
Director Doug Humes shifts scenes smoothly, helped by a curtain pushed along a rod from one end of the stage to another to allow the change of centuries. A conversation between Roget and Armstrong is enlivened by a real onstage badminton game. As the drama plays out and the modern couple discovers the curious results of what might have been a scientific inquiry there 200 years before, we realize that it isn't a game we're confronting.
The American cast has perfect control of their British accents and delivers excellent performances, especially Seana Kofoed as the abject Isobel, Linda Emond as the seething Susannah, and Jason Butler Harner as the self-absorbed young doctor.
"The Country Club"If you've never spent time in the company of the snooty country club set, this very funny play by Douglas Carter Beane will make you bless your good fortune. These characters -- with preppie names like Soos, Pooker, Froggy and Hutch -- are about 30 years old with attitudes seeped in formaldehyde. As they grow older, they will become their mothers and fathers and propagate the race. They have it all, including empty lives; they seem brain dead.
By Douglas Carter Beane, directed by Christopher Ashley
Produced by The Drama Dept.
Greenwich House Theatre, 27 Barrow St.
Opened September 29, 1999
Closes December 18, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 18, 1999
Soos (Cynthia Nixon) for example, who's been away in California for a while is brushing up on her country club-speak and asks, "How do you say someone is Jewish?" Pooker (Amy Hohn) replies, "What a character!" And how do you say someone is black? Pooker: "So well spoken!"
The Drama Dept. is known for quirky, on-target productions and this one, directed with generous good-humor by Christopher Ashley, lets us feel sorry for the narrow-minded protagonists even as we deride their attitudes. It also takes a stab at the elusive famous American dream.
The action takes place in "the cub room" (for young members), at a country club in a suburb of Reading, Pa., in James Youmans' setting of exaggerated elegance -- not only are the couch, damask chair, rug, tables and curtains on the French doors all white, even the book jackets are white!
Six denizens of the club get together at holiday parties, celebrating everything, from the standard New Year's Eve and Thanksgiving to April Fool's day. As they come together once a month or so, we see them have affairs, cheat on each other, revile "lower class" ethnics, and complain about the desolation of their lives.
Beane accomplishes that with wild ribaldry: Zip (Tom Everett Scott) and Hutch (T. Scott Cunningham), march in to the music of the Valkyrie, stark naked and carrying rifles, having accomplished their annual task of shooting at a blackface statue on somebody's lawn.
With shoulder-shrugging ironic dismay, Soos, really Susan, tells her friend Pooker (Patricia) that when her husband's eyes started playing musak, she knew he'd stopped loving her.
Froggy, ie Louise (Any Sedaris) orders her husband Brian (Peter Benson) to scratch her back: "Lower down, come on Brian, do it like a man. Make pretend." And, "What could you possibly be reading?" Pooker interjects, "The marriage certificate for loopholes."
Their world is shaken up when Hutch marries Chloe DeGlaziano (Callie Thorne) a working-class Italian with a thick New York accent. (On Valentine's day, she wears a red plastic heart knapsack purse.) "We're only a hop skip and a jump from bocce on the tennis courts," wails one.
Beane skewers their political smugness. When Chloe says the American dream includes a home and car, Brian bursts out, "But we've already got that." And he excuses his lack of political engagement by complaining that it's not him but the times: "If there were Vietnam like situations today, I would be protesting." There are wars, Zip reminds him. "Wars are so short, by the time you know what side you're on..." Brian replies, adding, "I'd have marched with Martin Luther"...he searches for the word..."King. I would have been so against segregated lunch counters. But we're just too late."
Zip reminds him, "You're talking civil rights in a restricted country club."
But they are trapped in their narrowness. When Zip dreams of his name stenciled on a door, with sons named Morgan and Chase, Soos reminds him, "Those aren't sons, they're banks." Soos, on the other hand, dreams about doing volunteer work, "throw pillows for the homeless."
When the play gets serious, when the characters express how scared and lonely they feel, how pathetic and desperate they are, the story turns hokey and not very convincing.
It's a top flight cast. The women seem to be the heart of the play, with Nixon's wise but not very wise Soos making you wish she wasn't going to make the same mistake again and Hohn and Sedaris the low-key and chirpy versions of females making do.
Callie Thorne is full of zest as Chloe who is both terrified and attracted by the waspish crowd. The friends, Scott and Cunningham, who both want the same woman, exude a sense of the eternal teenager, like old fraternity brothers who were BMOC but know they're now missing something in life. Peter Benson is wonderfully deadpan as the fastidious Brian who takes bits of fluff off a chair before he sits down.
The PriceA favorite Arthur Miller topic is the way the capitalist system's materialist goals and lack of social solidarity undermines peoples' welfare and happiness. It's a theme in "All My Sons," "Death of A Salesman," "The American Clock," and in "The Price," which gets a very fine, textured, naturalistic Broadway staging by James Naughton.
By Arthur Miller, directed by James Naughton
Produced by David Richenthal
Royale Theatre, 242 West 45 St.
Opened November 15, 1999
Closes December 31, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar November 18, 1999
Here, the economic impetus is the crash of 1929, and Miller's moral conundrum is set off by how the ruined father and his sons react, the degrees of selfishness and selflessness each display, and whether in the end their choices are the right ones. The play also explores the factors of trust, betrayal and illusion.
Two sons meet to deal with the disposal of the furniture of their once wealthy father's Upper West Side brownstone. The action takes place in Michael Brown's amazing magical set with dark wood chairs, tables, trunks, fringed lamps, piled high to the ceiling.
After the crash, the house had been taken over by the father's solvent brother, he and his goods were stuffed into the attic, and he never worked again. One son Victor Franz (Jeffrey DeMunn) sacrificed his plans to become a scientist, joined the police force and took care of his father, even living in a single room after he married. Another son, Walter (Harris Yulin), went to medical school and became a surgeon. Who served himself, his father and society better? Is one honorable and the other immoral?
As Miller tells it, they all were victims. The capitalist system had a hold on everyone in the family. We learn that, "Father believed in the system. He though [his failure] was his fault." The insecurity of the Depression scared Victor, who sought security in 28 resentful years on the force, while promising his wife, "once we get the pension, then we'll start to live." But it also maimed Walter, who made success and money his god. Victor acknowledges with disapproval, "There's no respect for anything but money."
Miller wrote later that he thought of Victor as "the dutiful man of order" and Walter as "the ambitious, selfish creator who invents new cures."
The play begins when, 16 years after their father's death, the brothers must sell the furniture, because the building is being torn down. They meet for the first time since the funeral, and they learn the price each paid for his personal decisions.
Vic also confronts his wife, Esther (Lizbeth Mackay. Neither party in the marriage is very satisfied with the other. Vic rebukes her for laying around and not working. Esther thinks he could have done better with his life and accuses him of blaming the system that paralyzed him with fear.
"The Price" is sometimes slow going, especially in the first act when the interaction with the caricatured furniture dealer, Gregory Solomon (Bob Dishy) seems rather like a TV comedy sketch. Dishy plays Solomon, the 90-year-old ladies man, as a heavily Jewish accented standup comic. He complains that the furniture is too sturdy. "Everything has to be disposable because the main thing today is shopping. With this kind of furniture the shopping is over." He's trying to make a deal for the furniture and meanwhile gives some avuncular advice to the other three. But you're not so sure you can trust him. He adds to the tension. You might agree with Esther that he's may be one more person trying to put something over on the naive Victor.
Jeffrey DeMunn's Victor is tired, drained, and looks older than the almost 50 years of his age. The edgy DeMunn, dry, hesitant, full of self-doubt, seethes with angry resentment. Harris Yullin is an engrossing Walter, who embodies the complexities of the Depression's fear of ruin and the maturity of self-knowledge.
The riveting, memorable part of the play is the brothers' confrontation, which is thick with emotional anger and leaves you with the feeling that there are no easy answers to who is right and wrong, and to whether a person's miseries are misfortunes or self-inflicted.
"Give Me Your Answer, Do"Brian Friel has a penchant for writing about dreary lives and moral choices in a way that pulls you into other people's lives and makes you wonder what you would do in their place.
By Brian Friel, directed by Kyle Donnelly
Produced by Roundabout Theatre Company
Gramercy Theatre, 127 East 23 St.
Opened October 5, 1999
Closes January 2, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 5, 1999
The central issue of the plot, which must have some personal resonance, is who is a success, the writer who struggles through poverty to say something meaningful or the hack who's sold his integrity for vacations in the Mediterranean? But the need for self-esteem afflicts less artistic sorts as well -- in this case, an evaluator of literary papers, a cocktail piano player, a doctor, and the two writers' wives. Essentially, the play about people's need for self-esteem and pride. And about the corrosive effect on personal relations of the failure to achieve it.
The hero is Irish writer Tom Connolly (John Glover), a scraggly, down-at-the-heels fellow of middle age who we're meant to believe has brilliance bursting to get out of his writer's block. We see his imagination take flight when he visits his 22-year-old autistic daughter Bridget (Woodwyn Koons) in the sanitarium where she lives. He hardly communicates with his wife, who has taken to drinking too much gin.
At the other pole is his friend and rival Garret Fitzmaurice (Gawn Grainger) who is crass and arrogant and has just sold his literary papers to a Texas University for a lot of money.
Desperate (the phone has been cut off, the electricity goes next), Tom invites the archives purchasing agent, David Knight (Michael Emerson), to the family's shabby rented house in Ballybeg, in the west coast county of Donegal, to look at his own papers. On one fateful afternoon, Knight will give his decision on the papers, Garret and his wife Grainne (Helen Cary) come to visit and brag, and the parents of Tom's wife Daisy (Kate Burton) pay a visit.
The day becomes a symbolic summing up of Tom's life. David has gone over every bit of his career, first drafts, rejection letters. What's it worth? Can you put a price on it? Should you want to? To match by money against the one who wrote for money? And should Tom do what might be morally objectionable to get the sale?
Like Friel's play "Aristocrats," staged at Lincoln Center this summer, the slow, lazy gathering on the back terrace of designer Thomas Lynch's decaying vine-covered stucco and brick house is a place where drink loosens people's tongues and inhibitions to reveal secret hopes and hurts. Kyle Donnelly keeps a pace that is languorous but absorbing, giving a sense that you are there at the party.
The characters are wistful about what might have been. Daisy had been a promising a young pianist. Daisy's father, Jack Donovan (Joel Gray) has his own secret, and his wife Maggie (Lois Smith) has to carry that burden and manage the family. She thinks it held back her medical career.
Well, then, isn't Garrett a success? Not altogether. Garrett and his wife delight in wounding each other. She tells him, "You aren't the writer you might have been, too anxious to please, afraid of offending."
There's also a strong sense that the both Daisy and Grainne resent their status as appendages to their husbands' lives. Daisy says to the men, "You're unhappy in the world you inhabit, and you're more unhappy in the fictional world you create." But she asks, "What happens to women.... They haven't a language of their own."
John Glover, with his pony tail and black nubby coat, is dramatic and self-dramatizing as he quotes from great writers, as if he feels succor in their company, as if they would protect him from the cruelties of daily life.
Sometimes the dialogue seems too obvious and didactic, as when Daisy declares that, "writers are always in trouble, especially writers of integrity." And there are some philosophically easy tricks, such as the notion that artists need uncertainty and that "Being alive is the postponement of verdicts." It's unlikely that Friel ignores his plays' reviews.
The story is enacted by an excellent cast, especially a moving Lois Smith as the arthritic doctor and also John Glover as a somewhat self-absorbed Tom and Kate Burton as a lonely Daisy. At a time when the literary fashion is measured in dollars, the story couldn't be more appropriate.
Fuddy MeersNothing is quite as it appears in this clever, bizarre, funny, engaging play, rather like the images in funhouse mirrors, or "fuddy meers," as one of the characters calls them. They all have secret pasts or dark memories and have figured out how to hide them. Claire (J. Smith-Cameron) goes to the greatest lengths, developing amnesia, which begins fresh each morning.
By David Lindsay-Abaire, directed by David Petrarca
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club
City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55 St.
Opened November 2, 1999
Closes January 2, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar November 17, 1999
Having no memory, Claire must take everyone on faith, but nobody communicates quite normally or honestly. Her mother Gertie (Marylouise Burke) has had a stroke and talks mostly gibberish, reversing syllables. Two men who make claims ON Claire, Richard, who professes to be her husband, and Zach, who says he's her brother, won't tell her the truth about her past. (In another block to communication, Zach lisps.) Zach's friend Millet (Mark McKinney) speaks via his hand puppet, who, he insists, has a mind of its own. And Claire's son Kenny communicates through a haze of marijuana and hostility.
The play is a mystery. What is the hidden past that has caused Claire to develop amnesia? Who is weird Zach, who appears from under her bed wearing a ski mask and persuades her to come with him to see their mother? Not only does he limp, but he has a disfigured ear, is blind in one eye and has a manacle on his wrist. And what role is played by the highway patrol cop dressed in a uniform that's clearly several sizes too large?
Author David Lindsay-Abaire's quirky, dark, comic work has a grim subject, wife abuse. Without denigrating its seriousness, director David Petrarca handles it in a context that is dreamlike and surreal. That mood is enhanced by a background of flashing amusement park lights, the sound of a calliope, and a miniature roadway where cars speed at appropriate times. A basement toy collection symbolizes, perhaps, loss of innocence.
Among the excellent cast, J. Smith-Cameron is appealing as the perky, flighty, ethereal mother and Patrick Breen is eccentrically sinister as Zach. Keith Nobbs is the perfect impossible hostile kid, Mark McKinney is a very funny puppeteer, and Marylouise Burke does an astonishing job speaking in doubletalk.
"The Balcony"Jean Genet's play is a biting satire of the upper classes in which anonymous men looking for unusual sexual kicks go to a bordello where they act out fantasies of being a bishop, a judge, a general.
by Jean Genet, translated by Bernard Frechtman, directed by Eve Adamson
Produced by the Jean Cocteau Repertory
Bouwerie Lane Theatre, 330 Bowery, corner Bond St.
Opened October 10, 1999
Closes December 16, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 27, 1999
The bishop, given a strong performance by Harris Berlinsky, mimics hearing confession and giving absolution to a prostitute; he relishes being submerged in sin. He delights in is exotic dress and takes pleasure in accusing women of being trollops. Still, he acknowledges, "I couldn't have been a bishop if I'd had to do the things that would have made me one."
The judge (Christopher Black), dressed in leather, looks on as a torturer beats a "victim," who sheds tears of repentance. The torturer must beat her so the judge can intervene and exert his authority. "You won't refuse to be a thief," he declares. "That will be criminal."
The general (Tim Deak) in gold armor and helmet and cap has fantasies of battle, of men of war in full regalia.
We are in the grand balcony of the house of illusions. But meanwhile in the streets, a revolution is taking place. Rebels are holding positions and setting fires. For George, the police chief and client-friend of the madam, the revolution is a game like all the others.
Still, as Genet knew, the people in power have the wit and means to betray and manipulate the rebellious classes. The corrupt use money and power to maintain their influence and to coopt those on the outside. Keeping the ruling class in power doesn't even require keeping the same individuals in their posts. It just means getting new adherents to swear allegiance. That's not difficult, since bishops and judges and generals are interchangeable, even with sexual "perverts."
The staging by director Eve Adamson is stark and stylized, and the costumes by Margaret McKowen garish. The thief wears black plastic pants and bra and red boots. A body is seen hanging from a rope on the wall. A bikini-clad woman with a stocking over her head twists slowly.
Though the individuals are bizarre enough, there's not enough to pull you into the fantasy, to build the illusion. The odd vignettes seem disconnected. There's not much help from the sparse set. Angela Madden is a taut, persuasive Carmen the bookkeeper, and Jason Crowl exudes royal superiority as the envoy who proposes make Irma queen to stop the revolution. However, Elise Stone is not convincing as a bordello owner, and Craig Smith plays the police chief a la hokey Cagney, which seems to make a joke of Genet. [Komisar]
Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.
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