By planning ahead, and purchasing one flexpass, I was able to see a trio of plays in New York during a single weekend for well under $200—a bargain price for world-class theater productions.
By Tim Jackson.
Adventurous theatergoers who haven’t been to New York City in a while should take note of the revelatory activity on the block of 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, away from the turmoil and hustle of Times Square. Here audiences can discover compelling new plays, revived classics, and superb ensemble theater at great prices. The Signature Theatre Company resides at The Pershing Square Signature Center at 480 West 42nd Street. It devotes entire seasons to examining the work of a single playwright, and the list is impressive. I have seen first-rate productions of scripts by Sam Shepard, Charles Mee, Edward Albee, Horton Foote, and, most recently an astounding production of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. Playwrights Horizon, now at 416 West 42nd Street, has long been a mainstay of new plays by contemporary American playwrights, composers and lyricists. The building designed by Frank Gehry houses two well-designed, medium-sized theaters with a wide open, high-ceiling lounge for pre-show visits. Theater Row at 410 is a complex of five newly renovated theaters housing resident companies that produce a wide variety of work.
I attended shows that have recently opened at all three venues. My aim was not to visit each location but to see plays I was curious about. By planning ahead, and purchasing one flexpass, I was able to see the trio in a single weekend for well under $200—a bargain price for world-class theater productions.
The first show at the Acorn Theater on Theater Row was Clive, based on Bertolt Brecht’s play Baal, adapted by Jonathan Marc Sherman and directed by and starring Ethan Hawke as Clive, a dissipated and decadent rock star whose hedonistic exploits lead to his destruction. He is aided by his devilish lover, companion, manager, and tempter Doc, played by an large, bald, lumbering, and unpredictable Vincent D’Onofrio. Throughout the proceedings, Clive sings badly, snorts mysterious powders, fornicates, and generally comes undone in colorful ways. This all sounded like it would be great hedonistic fun. Brecht wrote Baalin 1918, when he was only 20 years old and well before he saw theater as a force for social change.
I saw Hawke’s direction of Sam Shepard’s Lie of the Mind last year at this same theater and was impressed by the kinetic force of his production and by his intelligence and understanding of the primal and ritualistic power in Shepard’s text. I saw D’Onofrio in Shepard’s Tooth of the Crime in the 1996 where he and an amazing actor named Kirk Acevedo, accompanied by the music of T Bone Burnett, created a hypnotic production of a difficult play whose theme of dissipation (with a musical component) is similar to the Baal/Clive production. My hopes were high.
Unfortunately, this production of Clive is a long and painful 75 minutes. As Clive says in the course of the play (and I paraphrase), “my art is meant to be felt—not understood.” With that point in mind, I could feel, but not understand, the grating and unfocused nature of the direction. I saw Robert Woodruff’s production of Baal at the Trinity Rep in Providence in 1996, where the anti-hero was similarly slapped and shocked around. Baal was played as sadomasochist, full of “booze, food, poetry, virgins, whores, and animal hunger.” That production was an intentional slap in the face of Jesse Helms’s attempts to censor art, most notably the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andre Serrano.
Hawke’s version of Baal is similarly decadent and de-centered in its staging, but it feels contrived, and I am not sure how all this decadence is relevant today. Is it a moral lesson? For me, it smacks of too many theater workshop experiments, a cry for shocked spectacle that becomes silly, ugly, and eventually loses our attention. The music is too amateur to engage us or to make Clive credible, and the dialogue is often dreadful. Hawke’s approach to the production is loyal to the themes and youthful exuberance that Brecht intended, but the experiment falls short.
The Dance and the Railroad
The Signature Theater’s production of David Henry Hwang’s The Dance and the Railroad is the embodiment of grace and elegance. This play was originally produced in 1981: it was the 24- year-old Hwang’s second play. It broke new ground for its representation of Chinese-Americans on the stage. The emergence of the transcontinental railroad in 1867 was the beginning of an often tragic relationship between this country and the exploited Chinese immigrants who came in great numbers to help build the rail line. The lobby of the Signature Theater has information on this history and on the relationship of America to the Chinese, which was troubled, racist, and steeped in stereotypes for the next hundred years. What the young playwright fashioned out of this early history is a sharp, two-person drama that informs and illuminates, presenting an overlooked episode in America’s past.
Revised and beautifully staged on an angular, expressionistic set, the story concerns Lone and Ma, two workers on the railroad. Lone spends all his spare time on a mountaintop practicing the difficult skills of Chinese dance drama. The workers are on strike, which gives him plenty of time to practice. Lone philosophizes about the artistry, discipline, and beauty of this century-old art form to the younger and more innocent Ma. Hwang explores the contrast between Ma’s pipe dreams of material wealth and the refinement of Lone’s belief in art. The beautiful, young actor Yukun Wu makes superb use of gestures, verse, song, and the movements of Chinese theater in a graceful and powerful performance. Equally delightful is the apprentice Ma, played by Ruy Iskandar.
The script’s structure is an ingenious blending of content and form. In the original production, the movement was developed by (and the characters named after) the actors John Lone and Tzi Ma. This rare revival pays apt honor to an important work. The production is part of a season dedicated to the playwright’s work: the Hwang scripts to come include Golden Child and Kung Fu.
Annie Baker’s The Flick was the knockout of the three productions. The play takes place in an old Massachusetts movie theater in the midst of converting from celluloid to digital projection. Two low wage employees, Sam and Avery (Matthew Maher and Aaron Clifton Moten), sweep up the popcorn and mop the floors, while the projectionist (Louisa Krause) attends to one of the last, old, 35-millimeter film projectors in the state. This simple premise generates conversations that are not only among the funniest I have ever heard on a stage but contain revelations about what gives us hope and why we erect barriers against each other.
As a film geek and reviewer, I confess to a weak spot for the kind of inflated conversations about movie taste and trivia that fly between the two workers. In fact, I had to turn away at one point to keep from falling into a helpless fit of laughter. What is so brilliant about Baker is her ear for the cadences of everyday speech and her creative use of silence. Not since Harold Pinter have pauses been used so effectively to suggest all that is left unsaid. A few lines go by, the characters bait and challenge one another, and then they pause and think. All the while all you hear are the clack, clack of a broom and dustpan.
Matthew Maher (a former student at Cambridge Rindge and Latin) is masterful as Sam, a seemingly simple, working class character whose movie passion and pride in his job barely mask deeper pain and frustration. Yet he remains resilient. Mayer draws us into Sam’s small, sad world and gives him a fabulous nobility. He can’t go on? He’ll go on. As Avery, Aaron Clifton Moten is all intelligence and control. He comes from a well-to-do, black family; his father is a professor (a linguist) and for him this is just a summer job. Not so for Sam. Yet a respect and camaraderie evolve out of Sam’s respect for Avery’s unnerving skill at games of “Six Degrees of movie trivia,” where the challenge is to connect one actor to another through six films. These are devastatingly funny scenes.
Into the mix comes the pretty, punkish projectionist Rose, played by an insouciant Louisa Krause. Out of this emotional triangle comes revelations of each character’s pain. For all three a love for the movies, like many passions into which we escape (such as sports or the arts), serves as a cover for unresolved conflicts. Agony is buried in enthusiasm, hyperbolic opinions, and an excessive mastery of trivia.
Baker’s half finished sentences and rhythms are pure poetry. Director Sam Gold has directed all of her New York productions and draws from the cast members the humanity her writing requires. His staging, too, is ingenious. On stage we, the audience, face a row of theater seats. Moving the actors around gracefully in this cramped space is a challenge that Gold handles with aplomb. On the back wall, a projection window looks out onto smaller, silent dramas that look to us like pint-sized puppet shows. In fact, the play begins with the projector light shining out at the audience while a mythic movie soundtrack finishes a “film” that we don’t see. The “film” ends; the lights go down. The theater is empty. Enter the actors with their brooms—clack, swish, clack. They spend five minutes cleaning before one of them thinks of something to say. Brilliant.
I saw Baker’s Shirley, Vermont Trilogy Plays (Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens, and Body Awareness) last year at the Calderwood Pavilion. Last summer I took in her translation (and Gold’s direction) of Uncle Vanya (also with Maher in the cast) at the Soho Rep. Her work consistently explores the odd obsessions and distractions of contemporary life, the poetry of small lives nobly lived. Baker (and director Gold) understands that the biggest and richest emotional insights in American life are best discovered through a subtle examination of quiet desperations.