Irish theater values the act of storytelling as much as -- if not more than -- the story itself. The danger each playwright faces is that taken too far, this approach can feel like fetishization. Unfortunately, that's my impression of Conor McPherson's 1997 drama The Weir, which the Irish Repertory Theatre is reviving at its current digs in Union Square (the company previously presented this play -- with several of the same cast members -- two years ago). The play is little more than storytelling: in a remote Irish pub, the locals belt Jameson and Harp and indulge in spinning supernatural yarns they claim as true. McPherson is fascinated by the supernatural -- his plays The Seafarer and Shining City address the spirit world more directly -- and The Weir is a humanist attempt at a ghost story. It's also neither particularly poetic nor convincingly chilling. The actors give mostly fine performances, although more than a few line readings felt oddly tentative, and Amanda Quaid -- the lone woman, who shares the most disturbing story -- seemed young for her role. However, although only ninety-five minutes, Ciaran O'Reilly's production feels like a night where you stayed at the pub a few drinks past your limit.
The trickiest part of crafting a memoir is getting your very personal story to speak to something universal and recognizable for a wide audience. The best works of autobiography -- whether on the page (think Helen Keller's The Story of My Life or, more recently, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking) or the stage (Long Day's Journey Into Night, The Glass Menagerie) -- burrow deep into their authors' most private, painful and significant life experiences to create work whose power supersedes the specific. In an era where memoirs are more ubiquitous than ever, it is becoming harder and harder to strike this balance.
Unfortunately, Douglas Carter Beane's Shows For Days (at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater) misses the mark by a wide margin. In telling his own story, Beane is so hyper-specifically focused on minutiae that you're left to wonder if the people he's writing about would care to spend time with -- much less recognize the humanity in -- themselves.
In Clubbed Thumb's production of Jaclyn Backhaus's extraordinary Men on Boats, perfectly directed by Will Davis, it is 1869, and ten men are canoeing down the Colorado River in search of the "big canyon." They are in many ways a familiar bunch: the laconic hunter, the effete Englishman, the quirky old man (think Walter Brennan), the young man on his first adventure, the brilliant map-maker, and so on. They are led by a brave, stubborn one-armed captain. Their adventures and misadventures echo those of dozens of movies, old and new. No clichégoes unturned.
This might be business as usual, except that the actors are all women. They play the men as men, with no sense of drag or winking at the audience. They commit! They are a brilliant bunch of performers, and they nail the male clichés, all of which become sparkling new in their hands. Macho posturing, half-whispered voices, plaintive campfire songs, jostlingfor command, and other manly activities and traits all demand a fresh look when played by these amazing women. That the cast is multi-racial adds another layer of built-in commentary.
Here is how My Perfect Mind is described in press materials and on the 59e59 website:
Petherbridge, Hunter Photo: Manuel Harlan
Acclaimed classical actor and two-time Tony Award nominee Edward Petherbridge was cast as King Lear, when on the second day of rehearsals he suffered a stroke that left him barely able to move. As he struggled to recover Edward made a discovery: the entire role of Lear still existed word for word in his mind. From being on the brink of playing one of Shakespeare's most revered roles, to lying in a hospital bed surrounded by doctors, Edward never imagined what tragedies and comedies lay in store for him.
Bruce Norris can write. His dialogue crackles, his jokes mostly land, and occasionally he creates surprisingly vivid, three-dimensional characters. He's also a polemicist, and while he's less didactic -- and far less capital-S Serious -- than present-day windbag David Mamet, it's always clear that he has a point to put across, and he won't rest until you get it. This usually results in his plays, at some point, devolving from breezy, mildly unsettling evenings into a full-on death match, in which the characters basically form a circle and start berating each other. (For reference, see: pretty much the entire second act of his Pulitzer Prize winner, Clybourne Park). Again, this is not to say that the man's without talent. It's just that some people are better at using the sugar to make the medicine go down.
Norris' latest, The Qualms (at Playwrights Horizons through July 12), has a lot going for it. For my money, it boasts the tightest acting ensemble currently treading boards in New York. The action -- no pun intended -- centers around a beachfront condo where a group of middle-aged, well-to-do suburbanites have gathered to swap partners. Most of the guests are old pros; the too-cutely named Chris (Jeremy Shamos) and Kristy (Sarah Goldberg) are the newbs. Kristy hooks up with the host's partner (the brilliant Kate Arrington) within the first five minutes of the play; Chris spends the full ninety minutes resenting the entire arrangement, despite the fact it's implied that the idea to attend was his.
The Qualms, by Bruce Norris, focuses on a bunch of friends who get together periodically to have sex with one another in twos and threes. They are mellow, sure of what they want, and loving. On the night of the play, a new couple has joined them: Chris and Kristy. Chris and Kristy radiate the awkwardness of people who have never done this before and aren't 100% sure they want to do it now.
Champlin, Lucien Photo: Joan Marcus
In a way, The Qualms is a Utopia story. A group of people have made the world they want, and it works, until (not to mix metaphors) the snake shows up in the garden of Eden.
Chris is the snake here, and what an overwritten, straw man of a snake he is. Of course, he's white and works in finance. Of course, he's rigid and humorless. Of course, he's moralistic and judgmental. Of course, he's racist, sexist, homophobic, and size-ist. Of course, he's jealous and paranoid. Of course, he's unrelievedly rude. And, of course, they don't just throw him out on his ass, because then there wouldn't be a play.
Rajiv Joseph's stunning heart-breaker of a play, Guards at the Taj, is currently running through the end of June at Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater. It is a beautiful production: crisply directed by Amy Morton, sumptuously lit by David Weiner, and superbly acted by Omar Metwally (Humayun) and Arian Moayed (Babur). I hope it gets extended, and I hope you get the chance to see it.
Guards at the Taj is similar to Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo in its moody ruminations and its gently absurdist bent. But it is a smaller, more carefully constructed, and thus more emotionally satisfying affair: two characters, two sets, five brief and tautly constructed scenes. The show examines a few years in the lives of two (very) low-level imperial guards in Agra, India during the mid-1600s. Humayun and Babur are just as lost and yearning as many of the characters in Bengal Tiger were. But while that play felt looser and less cohesive, Taj zooms in on its characters' preoccupations, philosophies, emotional needs, strengths and weaknesses. Also, their lifelong friendship and love for one another, which is central to this play's warm, if also rather bloody, heart.