Monday, February 25, 2013

Off Broadway: The Radiant

Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne, and the only person to have won Nobel Prizes in two different sciences (Physics and Chemistry).  Arguably the greatest female scientist of all time, her many achievements included the conception of the theory of radioactivity (which contributed to a revolution in the foundations of physics), the isolation of radioactive isotopes, the discovery of two elements (polonium and radium), and the founding of major centers of medical research in Paris and Warsaw.  Having lost her mother and her sister when still a child and having determined to engage in scientific research at a time when women simply did not do that sort of thing, hers was the sort of life about which one would expect major dramatic works to be written – and that is just what Shirley Lauro has done.  Ms Lauro’s play, The Radiant, now being staged by Red Fern Theatre Company at The Theater at the 14th Street Y on East 14th Street in New York, explores one of the most dramatic episodes in the life of this truly extraordinary woman.

In 1903, Marie Curie (Diana LaMar) shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband, Pierre Curie, and with the physicist Henri Becquerel.  Three years later, Marie was widowed when Pierre died in a tragic road accident.  The Sorbonne Physics Department then offered Pierre’s chair to Marie, making her the first woman to hold a professorship at the Sorbonne. 

Among Marie’s greatest accomplishments was her discovery that radiation did not result from molecular interactions but rather from the atom itself.  This was a major step in up-ending the conventional theory that atoms are indivisible.  Although she really had effectively proved her theory through the work she, her husband, and Henri Becquerel already had done (which had earned them the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics), there still were those who continued to challenge her discovery, notable among whom was the eminent Lord Kelvin (Timothy Doyle).  And so, to clinch her case, Marie thought it necessary to isolate the radium atom which, with the help of her assistant, Paul Langevin (AJ Cedeno), is precisely what she did.  (It is interesting to note that the conflict between Lord Kelvin and Marie Curie on this issue, which plays such a significant part in The Radiant, is a bit reminiscent of the conflict which played out between Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke regarding the question of whether light consists of waves or particles (which played a similar role in Isaac’s Eye; see our review of that play on 2/10/13.) 

And then, in 1910, widowed with two young children, Marie began a love affair with Paul, her young married assistant who had four children of his own and who was five years her junior.

Less than a year later, Marie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her discoveries of radium and polonium and her isolation of radium but, before she even had time to deliver an acceptance speech in Stockholm, all hell broke loose.  Paul’s wife learned of the affair and informed her brother of it – who, as luck would have it, was the editor of a newspaper in Paris which, in turn, meant that the affair quickly became public news.  The scandal shocked Paris, xenophobic mobs stormed Marie’s house (she was, after all, a Pole, a foreigner!), and some members of the Swedish Academy even went so far as to urge Marie not to come to Stockholm to accept her Prize, suggesting that, had they known of her affair at the time, they would not have awarded the Prize to her in the first place.

Marie’s illustrious career might have ended right there, in scandal, but it did not.  She was much too tough for that.  Defying the Swedish Academy, she accepted her second Nobel, attended the Nobel ceremony and spoke these words:

I believe that there is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life….I cannot accept the idea in principle that the appreciation of the value of scientific work should be influenced by libel and slander concerning private life.”

Diana LaMar does an outstanding job depicting the complex character of Marie Curie – warts and all.  Marie may have been a scientific genius and a saintly advocate for the sick and injured who bore discrimination both as a foreigner and as a woman but she also was selfish and self-centered, consistently placing her own scientific interests above the interests of others – including those of her very own children.  And Ms LaMar manages to convey all that in her portrayal of Marie – no easy task.  AJ Cedeno is also excellent as the philandering and ambivalent Paul Langevin.  Timothy Doyle displays a multitude of talents in a variety of roles: as the pompous and arrogant Lord Kelvin, as the beaten down Professor Wilbois, and as the unfeeling and lecherous Paymaster.  Finally, mention should be made of Rachel Berger who plays the part of Katarina, Marie’s exploited Polish niece, with disarming charm.   

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Off Off Broadway: Anthem

“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made it happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.  Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.”

That’s what Barack Obama said in a speech in July, 2012.  But those words might just as well have been spoken by a character straight out of Ayn Rand’s novella “Anthem.”

“Anthem” is set in a post-apocalyptic, futuristic dystopia in which much of the world’s knowledge has been lost (torches and candles, for example, are required to provide light and power since all knowledge of electricity is gone). The society is so collectivist and anti-individualist that even personal pronouns have been banned in human discourse (individuals refer to themselves as “we,” never as “I”).  Individual initiative is not merely discouraged but is prohibited and punished.  Inventions and discoveries are deemed to be less than valueless – they are outright evil – unless they are created collectively.

But one man, Equality 7-2521, somehow manages to break free of the collectivist society’s bonds.  He comes to see the light – both figuratively and literally – as he re-discovers electricity, finds a kindred spirit in his lover, Liberty 5-3000, and, with her, sets out to re-make the world into a free utopian individualist paradise where “ego” is no longer a dirty word but the most sacred word of all.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am something of an Ayn Rand fan myself.  I enjoyed both “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” and I find myself very much in sympathy with her Objectivist philosophy.  Indeed, my reading of “Atlas Shrugged” (one of the most influential books of the Twentieth Century and still going strong) was a major factor in the development of my own libertarian philosophy (as it was for so many others, such as Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan).  And yet, despite my admiration for Ms Rand, the pleasure I’ve derived from reading her two best known works, and the debt I owe her for the huge contribution her works have made in the development of my own libertarian thinking, still I must say that I really don’t think much of her earlier fictional works:  “We the Living,” “The Night of January 16,” and “Anthem.”  All three, in my opinion, are shallow books with flimsy story lines, populated by cardboard characters.  And that is especially true of “Anthem.”

“Anthem” falls into the literary genre of dystopic science fiction, as does George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”  But from a literary standpoint, it is clearly not in a class with either of those works.  The world depicted in “Anthem” is preposterous, its characters two-dimensional, and although I am personally more than sympathetic to the book’s message, it is delivered in such sophomoric fashion as to make it difficult to take seriously.  All of which means that I wouldn’t recommend reading “Anthem” for its literary value.

On the other hand, “Anthem” is worth reading for its historical value in providing Ayn Rand fans and students of her work with a window into the evolution of both her literary style and her Objectivist philosophy.  In “Anthem” one will find the seeds that eventually blossomed into Ms Rand’s magnum opus, “Atlas Shrugged”: Equality 7-2521 (subsequently renamed “The Unconquered” and “Prometheus”) is clearly the precursor to “Atlas Shrugged’s” John Galt; Equality 7-2521 is a street sweeper who discovers an abandoned subway tunnel whereas Galt is a railroad track walker; Equality’s rediscovery of electricity foreshadows Galt’s invention of a machine that will change the world; Equality’s retreat to a sanctuary in the Uncharted Forest, whence he will embark on the creation of a new individualistic world, presages the creation of Galt’s Gulch in “Atlas Shrugged”; and on and on.  And “Atlas Shrugged” is such an important book in its own right, that that fact alone makes “Anthem” worth reading.

So far, however, I have written only of “Anthem,” the novella, and not of the play of the same name now being staged by Random Access Theatre at The Dorothy Strelsin Theatre in the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex on West 36th Street.  But what of the play itself?

Well, considering all the reservations I’ve already expressed regarding the literary worth of the novella, I must say that I thought that Anthem, the play, turned out surprisingly well.  The play was adapted from the novella by Jennifer Sandella (who also directed) and she did just about as good a job as anyone might have expected in focusing on the book’s strengths and glossing over its inadequacies while remaining true to its underlying message.

Anthem is staged – one might almost say choreographed - modernistically on a bare stage with no props, underscoring the fantastical nature of the production and demanding a suspension of disbelief from the audience right from the get-go.  The play has a small cast of five, four of whom play a wide variety of roles ranging from Liberty 5-3000 (Equality’s lover) to International 4-8818 (Equality’s friend) to various members of the World Council of Scholars to other downtrodden members of the dystopic society, but the heavy lifting all falls on the shoulders of Tom Carman who plays the lead role of Equlity 7-2521.  Since Anthem is based on the work of Ayn Rand, that “heavy lifting” takes the form of exposition much more than physical action but Carman is not to be faulted for that: given the novella’s limitations and the style of Ms Sandella’s adaptation, he has delivered as fine a performance as anyone might have asked for.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Off Broadway: Off the King's Road

L-R: Christopher Borg and Jack Davidson in OFF THE KING'S ROAD.  Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

Off the King’s Road, Neil Koenigsberg’s first full-length play, is currently premiering at the Theatre for the New City on First Avenue in Lower New York, but its theme is so timeworn and its cookie cutter characters tread such familiar ground in such predictable fashion that I couldn’t help thinking that I’d seen it all before.

Matt Browne (Jack Davidson), having recently lost his wife and retired from business, is understandably lonely and depressed.  In an attempt at recovery and revitalization, he travels to his favorite city, London, for a brief vacation at “Off the King’s Road,” a small hotel in Chelsea.  Once in London, he encounters all the usual suspects: Sheena McDougall (Mihaela Mihut), a Croatian whore with a heart of gold; Ellen Mellman (Amy Van Nostrand), a cat loving widow who is a long time resident of the hotel; and Freddie (Christopher Borg), the hotel’s cheerfully compassionate gay manager/concierge.  Meanwhile, Matt remains in long distance telephonic contact with his New York based therapist, Dr. Samuel Seth Yablonsky (Ethan Cohn).

This would be the point at which one might be expected to issue a “Spoiler Alert,” before divulging any more of the play’s plot, but in this case it’s not really necessary because there’s really not much of dramatic import that actually happens.  Matt develops a fondness for Sheena, whose boyfriend becomes jealous, but the jealous boyfriend angle just kind of peters out.  Matt and Ellen discover that they have something in common, a shared love of Ingmar Bergman movies and…nothing.  Matt and Freddie commiserate over their lost loves and sexual frustrations but nothing comes of it.   

The play is rife with red herrings that might have led somewhere but didn’t.  What was the significance of the mysteriously lost drawing board mentioned at the start of the play?  Nothing.  Why does Freddie seem reluctant to disclose that there are so few residents at the hotel?  Do we have the makings of an Agatha Christie mystery here?  Nope, there just are very few residents of the hotel at this time.  Why does Ellen’s cat disappear and reappear?  Because that’s just what cats do.  When Dr. Yablonsky informs Matt that he has separated from his wife, what does it mean?  Apparently nothing more than that Dr. Yablonsky has separated from his wife.  When Matt mixes up the package of shirts he planned to send to the laundry with another package he intended to discard, what would it lead to?  Well, in this case, at least we got a few laughs out of it, but nothing more.  And should we worry about Sheena’s jealous boyfriend threatening Matt.  Don’t lose sleep over it.

In sum, the playwright has teased his audience again and again but failed to deliver.  Off the King’s Road runs two hours without an intermission but that’s because no intermission is called for.  Plays with intermissions generally are structured to create a tension in the first act and a resolution in the second, but since no tension is created in Off the King’s Road, no resolution is required.  So why bother with an intermission?  Unlike most plays with beginnings, middles, and ends, with conflicts and resolutions, Off the King’s Road is little more than a picture of a week in the lives of five lonely individuals.  There are moments of humor and moments of pathos but it’s just not enough.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Off Off Broadway: Isaac's Eye

L-R: Haskell King, Jeff Biehl, and Michael Louis Serafin-Wells in ISAAC'S EYE.  Photo by Gerry Goodstein
In Isaac’s Eye, now having its premiere at The Ensemble Studio Theatre on West 52nd Street, the very talented playwright, Lucas Hnath plays fast and loose with the facts of Isaac Newton’s life as we know them.  Yet none of this is to suggest that he has attempted in any way to mislead his audience..  On the contrary, he is scrupulously honest in letting us know just what in his play is true, “really for real,” and what is not.  And Hnath’s writing is so lyrical that we should be grateful for the poetic license he has taken.

There are a lot of things that we know about Isaac Newton (Haskell King) and much that we know about Robert Hooke (Michael Louis Serafin-Wells) and Catherine Storer (Kristen Bush) as well.  (And there is much that we know about the times in which they lived – for instance that there was a plague in England in 1665-1666.)  But there is even more that we don’t really know about any of them, at least not with any degree of certainty.

We know, for instance, that Newton once threatened to burn down his parent’s house; that he once bashed another kid’s head into a wall; that he believed that light consisted of particles; that he once wrote verses on Catherine’s attic wall and that, late in life, he tried to buy her family’s house; that he disliked Robert Hooke intensely; that his work on optics got him into the prestigious Royal Society; that he believed that God guided his thoughts; that he re-wrote the Bible; that he never married; and that he once put a needle into his tear duct.  And we know that Hooke was himself a scientist of the first rank; that he founded the field of meteorology; that he discovered cells; that he was one of the first people to ever study fossils; that he explained elasticity (which explanation is now known as “Hooke’s Law”); that he believed that light consisted of waves; that he repeatedly experimented on dogs by exploding their lungs; that he had an affair with his niece; that he did a lot of drugs; that he slept with a number of housemaids and recorded his ejaculations in his sex diary; and that he disliked Newton as much as Newton disliked him.

But there is so much more that we don’t know.  We don’t know, for instance, whether Newton really was in love with Catherine; we don’t know whether Hooke ever even met her; and we don’t even know why Newton put a needle into his tear duct in the first place.  But all those things that we don’t know didn’t prevent Hnath from creating a narrative based upon what we do know and that narrative, Isaac’s Eye, provides us with an insight into the “true” nature of man (even where the details may be a figment of the playwright’s imagination).

In effect, Hnath has confronted us with the question of whether “truth” is nothing more than correspondence to reality or whether there is a larger “truth” - some way in which we might integrate and contextualize those mundane factoids that we take to be “truths” in our day-to-day affairs, such that a figuratively true, even if not literally true, narrative might still emerge.

Kristen Bush in ISAAC'S EYE.  Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
In addition to King, Serafin-Wells, and Bush, the only other actor in the play is Jeff Biehl who plays the dual roles of a narrator and of a man dying of the plague.  All four actors are absolutely superb in their respective roles.  King is terrific as the young, arrogant, brilliant, narcissistic, and emotionally immature Isaac Newton, intent on becoming a member of the Royal Society.  Serafin-Wells is equally impressive as the older, drug and sex addicted Robert Hooke who is brilliant, arrogant and narcissistic in his own right, but who now is threatened by this new young upstart.   Bush is delightful as Catherine Storer, the conventional daughter of an apothecary, much taken with Isaac but eager to marry and raise a family.  And Biehl is splendid in both of his roles, as narrator and dying man.  Finally, the play’s director, Linsay Firman, deserves special praise for having managed to stage such a successful production in Ensemble Studio Theatre’s very challenging and not very accommodating space.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Off Off Broadway: Moose Murders

Steven Carl McCasland and Brittany Velotta in MOOSE MURDERS.  Photo by Samantha Mercado Tudda.

My wife, Sue, fully intended to accompany me to yesterday’s performance of Moose Murders by Arthur Bicknell at the Connelly Theater on East 4th Street but she awoke with such a bad head cold that she reluctantly had to beg off.  So I was left to attend this revival of what has come to be known as “the most notorious flop in Broadway history” by myself.  I did - and Sue turned out to be the lucky one.

This play is absolutely appalling with no redeeming social value.  When it first opened on Broadway in 1983, it received such scathing reviews that it closed after just one performance (following 13 previews).  Clive Barnes of the New York Post wrote that it was “so indescribably bad that I do not intend to waste anyone’s time by describing it.”  Frank Rich of The New York Times subsequently referred to it as “the worst play I’ve ever seen on a Broadway stage.”

Why, then, has The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective chosen to revive this fiasco?

Well, to be generous, one might recall Samuel Johnson’s description of the re-marriage of a man who had been unhappily married as “the triumph of hope over experience” and suggest that the revival of a bad play might fall into a similar category.  Or, to be less generous, one might recall the definition of “insanity” widely attributed to Albert Einstein: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  I’d tend to go with Einstein on this one.

To be fair, it’s not completely clear that Beautiful Soup realized that they were about to “do the same thing over again.”  According to the company’s original press release, the play had been “significantly rewritten and revised” for this production and the play’s full title on the current program is Moose Murders (Shamelessly Revised) so maybe Beautiful Soup really had reason to believe that they were about to stage something different.  On the other hand, Steven Carl McCasland, the company’s Artistic Director, stated in a program note: “This is a true Moose Murders.  No mocking here.  No camp.  Just a moose, a mystery and lots of history!”  So how different did he really think it could be?

As it turns out, it clearly wasn’t different enough.  Admittedly, I never saw the 1983 production so I’m not really in a position to say whether this production is any better or worse than the original.  Maybe it really is an improvement but, if so, it is hard for me to imagine how the original could have been any worse than this, given the retention of the play’s basic plot structure and cast of characters.

The original script for Moose Murders referred to it as a “Mystery Farce in Two Acts” and that’s pretty much what it still is – or, at least what it aspires to be.  Set in a lodge in the Adirondacks, with a zany cast of characters, the play seems intended to be a farcical parody of such classic Agatha Christie mysteries as The Mousetrap and Ten Little Indians.  But it really doesn’t work.  The story line is absurd and the characters offensively preposterous.

As the play begins, we are introduced to the singer Snooks Keene and her blind accompanist husband, Howie, who had been entertainers at the Wild Moose Lodge but who have just been given their walking papers by the lodge’s caretaker, Joe Buffalo Dance, now that the lodge has been sold to the wealthy Hedda Holloway.  Hedda shows up with her family in tow: Stinky, her drug-addled son who seems obsessed with the idea of having sex with his mother; her younger daughter, Gay, who might be taken to be Shirley Temple’s evil twin; her flaky married older daughter, Lauraine Holloway Fay; Lauraine’s husband, Nelson Fay; Hedda’s husband, Sidney, a wheelchair-bound, gauze-swaddled, quadriplegic who is apparently in a vegetative state; together with Nurse Dagmar, who is there to care for Sidney.

The inevitable storm arrives and the bridge is washed away, preventing Snooks and Howie from leaving and assuring that they and Joe Buffalo Dance and the entire Holloway entourage all will be forced to spend the night together under the same roof.  The characters agree to play a murder mystery card game, the lights go on and off, one after another are murdered or, if not, at least strangled, hogtied, shot, bludgeoned or, at a minimum, threatened with a meat cleaver. 

But who is the murderer?

By this time, who cares?

When McCasland prided himself on having eschewed mockery and camp in staging this production, he may have made a big mistake.  It might have been a lot better if he had created a self-referentially mocking and campish production rather than attempting unsuccessfully to extract something of theatrical value from material that had none to provide.

Brittany Velotta, who played the part of Snooks as if she were Marisa Tomei on steroids, is the only cast member deserving of mention.  She brought a level of enthusiasm and ebullience to the play that I thought was otherwise lacking.  It is possible, of course, that one or more of the other cast members did as well, or perhaps even better, than might have been expected of them, given the material they had to work with, but if so, it was sadly impossible to discern.

So what lesson might we take away from all this?

Maybe just that sometimes it's best to let sleeping moose lie.