Monday, 21 November 2016

RANCHO VIEJO by Dan LeFranc at Playwrights Horizons

     The first question retiree Pete (Mark Blum), asks his wife Mary (Mare Winningham), in Dan LeFranc's weird, enjoyable play is "Are you happy?" I'm not sure how anyone could be happy living with Pete, who obsesses more on the lives of people he doesn't know than on the needs of his own wife. Mary hasn't thought much about whether she is happy and, when she does start thinking, she finds her marriage unsatisfying. Nobody seems to think much in this play filled with characters whose lives seem to be lived totally on the surface and who seem to have no meaningful connections at home or among their so-called friends. RANCHO VIEJO is named after the California subdivision where these characters live. One unchanging living-room set serves as the domestic spaces of four different married couples. Clearly their homes are interchangeable. One character speaks in Spanish, which only her husband can understand, but the other characters listen intently as if they understand. Their conversations in English don't suggest much connection. Pete and Mary have a gift for saying the wrong thing in every social situation. One neighbor has a hole in her eye that makes it impossible for her to see heads, so recognizing people is a problem. Even the dog seems oblivious to its master and mistress.
      Mary seeks solace in art, but it isn't clear what spiritual enrichment can come from the pictures of whales that she admires. She hopes a shared love of art will provide some connection with her friends, but that seems doubtful. A neighbor has written a book that uses culinary imagery to convey life lessons. He wants Mary to create the cover art even though it isn't clear that she can draw or paint. Tate (Ethan Dubin), a rather strange young man who appears mysteriously in people's houses, forces Pete to watch his artistic creation, a bizarre dance that seems part martial arts, part pole dance. The dance may represent Tate's inner self (if he or any other character in the play has such a thing), but Pete totally rejects it. Toward the end of the play, Mary asks Pete, "Am I art?" It's a nonsensical question to which Pete tries to give a rational, comforting answer but it belies the bafflement these characters experience if they start reflecting on their hollow existence.
     I recount these details to give you a sense of the play's bizarre vision of meaninglessness and disconnection. RANCHO VIEJO is funny in places. It's an oddball vision of suburban life. The first two acts of this three-and-a-quarter hour play are static and repetitive. This is more an observation than a criticism. LeFranc is showing us static, repetitive lives. The two acts are never dull. Act Three takes Pete on an odd, funny, fascinating nighttime odyssey.
     Daniel Aukin has given the play the sweet, somewhat surreal atmosphere it needs. The cast is excellent, particularly Blum, who gives Pete, the central character, a sweet, kooky quality. I loved watching Julia Duffy's face in the group scenes. Everyone acts as if this were a realistic play. The style is a mix of American domestic realism and absurdist dramas like Ionesco's work and Albee's THE AMERICAN DREAM. Here, however, these vacuous folk are immensely likable.
     I thoroughly enjoyed RANCHO VIEJO. If I had any reservation, it is that the cozy resolution seemed unearned and unconvincing.  

Thursday, 17 November 2016

HOMOS: OR EVERYONE IN AMERICA by Jordan Seavey presented by Labyrinth Theater Company

     In the affecting, often funny HOMOS, Jordan Seavey takes a relatively standard narrative for romantic drama and film--lovers "meet cute," fall in love, fight, break up, reunite after one is badly injured--and uses it as a platform for arguments about contemporary racial, gender and gay politics. What makes HOMOS original is Seavey's non-linear arrangement of events.
     For some reason, Seavey's lovers aren't given names, but are known only by their profession (The Academic, The Writer). This only makes sense of these characters are generic (are there generic writers and academics?). The Writer has written a short story that bears many similarities to Seavey's play, THE TRUTH WILL OUT. Are we, perhaps to see the play as autobiographical? The Writer is a Jewish atheist whose political views are often less logical than passionate. The Academic (his fields are gender and media studies) easily pokes holes in the writer's lack of logic. From what we see, the two spend most of their  time together arguing. In fact, as I watched the play, I couldn't help but wonder what kept these guys together beyond a need to be with someone. As in many dramas we categorize as gay plays, the lovers spend a lot of time arguing about what it means to be gay. Monogamy is a key issue: The Writer wants to experiment but The Academic wants a stable, committed relationship.  Seavey also wants us to see that being gay can still be perilous, even in trendy Brooklyn.
     My summary makes the play seem more hackneyed than it is. Seavey knows how to write vibrant dialogue and the non-linear time frame keeps the audience absorbed in putting the pieces together. HOMOS is thoroughly enjoyable even if we have the sense at times that we've been there before. What makes the play more than the sum of its parts is its presentation. Like Mike Bartlett's COCK, HOMOS is given a stripped down, minimalist production. No set except a window, few props, no costume changes for the principals who barely leave the stage. In the tiny Bank Street Theatre, the playing area is about as wide as a hallway. The audience is so close to the actors that we could touch them. The success of the production depends on the actors and Seavey and his director Mike Donohue couldn't have a better pair than Michael Urie and Robin De Jesus. There's a real challenge to acting that close to an audience, particularly in a play as emotionally raw as this one. Any inauthenticity ruins the performance. These two fine actors make what could be cliched moments believable. Regular New York theatergoers know how well Michael Urie can win over an audience. Is there a more charming performer? His character is deeply flawed, but Urie makes us see how someone could fall in love with him. De Jesus, usually a featured performer in musicals (he won a Tony for his performance in IN THE HEIGHTS), has the greater challenge as his character is more emotionally raw, more vulnerable. It's not always easy to modulate the big moments he is given in such a small space. He never overdoes it. When he cries out that he needs to be held, it's hard to resist reaching out and comforting him. As I walked back to the subway I pondered what the play would be like with other actors in the roles. It will happen, of course, but I'm glad I got to see these two fine performers work together so brilliantly. Aaron Costa Ganis and Stacey Sargent are fine in small supporting roles but the play belongs to the two leads who give real star turns. Mike Donahue has crafted the perfect production for this play.
     I hope Labyrinth can extend this superb production so more folks can see Urie and De Jesus work together in this enjoyable, often moving play.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

SWEAT by Lynn Nottage at the Public

     SWEAT couldn't be more timely. Here's a play about the sort of folk who enthusiastically voted for Donald Trump, the men and women who no longer trust any aspect of the system. The plant owners are asking for 60% pay cuts or they'll move to Mexico, which they are already stealthily starting to do. The unions do nothing except offer supermarket vouchers to factory workers who have been locked out. George W. Bush's face is on the television screen (it is interesting that it is Bush's face we see--the play is set in 2000, the end of Bill Clinton's era of prosperity), but we don't hear his voice. Politicians don't care about Reading, Pennsylvania, the depressed area where SWEAT takes place. Lynn Nottage's play has powerful moments, yet there is something that rings false about the play. The characters are far more sententious than they would be. Nottage went to Reading and interviewed a number of people. The result is that the play seems to hover between realistic drama and docudrama. In docudrama, in which actors present the voices of real people, we expect paragraphs rather than sentences. In realistic drama, characters don't constantly give speeches to each other. SWEAT is also a barroom drama, a genre that seems to allow for more speechifying (think of O'Neill's THE ICEMAN COMETH, in which characters speak in very long paragraphs). The second act, in which tensions come to a violent head, is far more  effective than the talky first act. I kept asking myself during the first act, "Where is this going?"
     Nottage's play focuses on the friendship of three women who work together on a factory assembly line. The sons of two of the women also work on the line. This is the expected life of workers at this plant. As Tracey, the meanest and seemingly toughest of the women, tells us, her father worked on the line, and now her son does. The jobs are family legacies. Racism is not an issue here, Tracey's best friend, Cynthia, is Black; Tracey's son Jason, and Cynthia's son, Chris, are best friends. Yet racial difference is an issue. For all their closeness, Tracey and Cynthia, Jason and Chris, see their positions in their world very differently. Chris wants to get away from the plant and go to college. The men in this world are already beaten down. Tracey's husband is dead; Cynthia's husband, already out of work, walks around in a drug-induced haze. Stan, the bartender, is maimed from an accident on the assembly line.
      There is a more crucial racial-ethnic element in the play. Oscar, American-born but of Colombian descent, quietly goes about his menial tasks in the bar. Tracey, the most voluble and least sympathetic of the characters, calls him a Puerto Rican and tells him that work in the factory is not for his kind of people. Tracey proudly tells him that her people have been in reading since 1920. To Tracey, Oscar is not an American. The play moves toward violence (egged on by Tracey), when Oscar takes a job as a "scab" at the factory that has locked out Tracey, her son and her friends.
     The action in 2000 is framed by events eight years later when we see the fallout from the violence in the bar and further economic depression in Reading. In SWEAT it is the whites who cannot cope with change, who fester from their lack of empowerment. The subtext of the play is the necessity of adaptability. Anger only backfires.
      There are powerful moments in SWEAT, but their are flaws. The framing scenes of Jason and Chris talking to their parole officer are out of television drama. This sort of post-prison counseling is done so well on RECTIFY (one of the best shows on television), that here these scenes seem formulaic. The socio-economic reversals at the end aren't totally convincing. I found Tracey such a monster that I had no sympathy for her.
    The ensemble couldn't be better. It is impossible to single anyone out. Kate Whoriskey has given the play as much of a sense of authenticity as the script allows. John Lee Beatty's set is totally convincing.