Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Off Broadway: Love Therapy

L-R: Alison Fraser and Janet Zarish in LOVE THERAPY.  Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia.

Love Therapy by Wendy Beckett, now premiering at the DR2 Theatre in downtown Manhattan, is just 85 minutes long without an intermission – or perhaps a few minutes longer if we one includes the time in which the audience sits wondering whether or not the play truly has ended.  And, indeed, it is not until the cast emerges on stage to take their curtain calls that one really can be sure that the play is over.

This is more of an idea for a play than a fully realized one.  Ms. Beckett has drawn several bright lines delineating the play’s major themes – including the search for “authenticity,” the limitations of love and sympathy in seeking therapeutic solutions to life’s crises, and the conflict that exists between playing by the rules and giving vent to one’s emotions – and she does a fine job of coloring in the areas between the lines.  But one never can be sure that the colors used were the right ones and that it’s all not a pack of lies to begin with.

Colleen Fitzgerald (Margot White) is a psychologist and marriage counselor who believes that successful therapeutic results can only be achieved through a combination of “authenticity” and “love” on the part of the therapist, and who is more than willing to bend, if not break, the rules of her profession to that end.  Her patients (or “clients” as she prefers to refer to them) include Steven Jones (David Bishins), a womanizer who has been referred to Colleen by his wife; Brian Beatie (Christopher Burns), an angry and violent man whose business is more important to him than is his marriage; and Mary (Janet Zarish), who is suffering from severe depression in the wake of the loss of both her daughter and her husband.

David claims to support mistresses (which he suggests is the reason his wife has urged him to go into marriage counseling) but not to frequent prostitutes, although he subsequently reveals that his wife herself was once a prostitute and, anyway, it might not have been his infidelities but rather the loss of a child that prompted him to seek Colleen’s help in the first place.  Or, for all we know, none of that may be true.  Additionally, David initially contends that he does not find Colleen at all attractive – she’s just not his type – which is one reason that he chose her to be his therapist.  As matters develop, that turns out to be blatantly untrue, and it is Colleen’s relationship with him that ultimately threatens her professional career. 

Brian is an overtly misogynistic, angry, and violent man, willing to accede to a divorce from his wife if that won’t entail his having to sell his company.  Colleen is aware of his violent nature but fails to take any action in light of it which, the audience is led to assume, may have led to serious adverse consequences for his wife.  Or maybe not.  Again we really are left in the dark.

Mary, Colleen’s most deranged “client,” recently lost her adult daughter in a car crash, the car having been driven by Mary’s husband, which explains Mary’s depression and Colleen’s willingness to violate the rules of her profession by involving herself in the dispensation of drugs to Mary in a misguided but compassionate attempt to alleviate Mary’s misery..  Mary’s husband died, too, but the circumstances of his death are less clear – which leaves us with yet another mystery to unravel.

And there even are some mysteries involving Colleen herself.  Her abilities as a marriage counselor apparently didn’t extend to her own life: she is a divorcee.  And if it was her childhood that made her what she is today, what exactly is that anyway? Is she a woman who loves too much or one who is unable to love at all?

And that about sums up the play’s strengths and weaknesses.  On the plus side, it is rife with mysteries, uncertainties, and surprises, just the stuff of which fine plays are made.  But on the negative side, it never fully resolves the questions it raises, and so it ultimately comes across as disappointingly incomplete.

The only other characters in the play are Carol (also played by Janet Zarish), Colleen’s supervisor and mentor who appreciates and respects Colleen’s somewhat unorthodox therapeutic methods but who, at the same time, is trying to protect Colleen from herself; and Madge (Alison Fraser), a simple Irish waitress who exhibits more common sense in dealing with psychologically damaged individuals than do most trained professionals.  And, ironically, while Ms. White, Mr. Bishins and Mr. Burns perform admirably in their respective roles, I was especially impressed by Ms. Zarish and Ms. Fraser in the roles of Carol/Mary and Madge, respectively.  Ms. Zarish was particularly outstanding in her portrayal of the two diametrically different roles of Mary, a deranged depressive, at one moment, and as Carol, a self-assured therapist, the next.     

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Off Broadway: The Dance of Death

L-R: Daniel Davis, Laila Robins and Derek Smith in THE DANCE OF DEATH.  Photo by David Gersten & Associates,  Carol Rosegg

In August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, Edgar (Daniel Davis), Captain of an island fortress, and his wife, Alice (Laila Robins), a former actress prior to her marriage to Edgar, are on the verge of celebrating their silver wedding anniversary.  The island once served as a prison but Edgar and Alice have created a more formidable prison of their own: the bonds of their nearly 25 years of dysfunctional married life, a life of mutual hatred, resentment, cruelty, prevarication, self-absorption and denial.

Edgar’s self-aggrandizement and delusions of grandeur border on solipsism.  He claims to be in fine financial shape but can’t pay his bills.  The fact that he never was promoted to major may rankle but he won’t admit it: he contends that he chose to turn down promotions when they were offered to him.  His children have little use for him other than as a potential source of funds but he can’t face that.  He has no friends and is unable to retain servants but does not see how any of that might be his own fault.  In sum, if ever there is some aspect of life that he dislikes, he simply “blots it out.”

Alice is equally deranged.  She fantasizes that she relinquished a promising career as an actress to marry Edgar when, in reality, she didn’t have much of a stage career to give up on to begin with.  She has no better relationship with her children than Edgar has and she blames him for that.  Nor does she take any personal responsibility for their lack of friends or loss of servants.

With that as backdrop, these two severely maladjusted individuals wreak havoc on one another in their interpersonal relations.  In a way, they come across as lovers playing at consensual but dangerous sex games – who forgot their “safe word.”  As a military man, Edgar seems to treat their relationship as some sort of “war game,” with Alice as the enemy.  And as a former actress, Alice seems to want to force Edgar into the role of her doting audience.  Indeed, compared to Edgar and Alice, Edward Albee’s George and Martha (from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) come off as little worse than Ralph and Alice Kramden of The Honeymooners.

When Gustav (Derek Smith), Alice’s cousin, shows up, matters quickly go from bad to worse.  Now Gustav is assigned the role of Edgar’s enemy and of Alice’s audience.  Gustav’s own personal life is in something of a shambles: he is divorced and estranged from his own children.  He may at one time have been Edgar’s close friend; he may have been instrumental in getting Edgar and Alice together in the first place (at least Edgar blames him for that); and he and Alice may once have been, or may yet become, something more than just “kissing cousins.”

Red Bull Theater has just launched a fine production of The Dance of Death (in an excellent new highly stylized adaptation by Mike Poulton) at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. Complications and surprises abound and all three of the play’s actors are up to the demands made of them.  This play is certainly well worth seeing.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Off Broadway: Kafka's Monkey

Kathryn Hunter in KAFKA'S MONKEY.  Photo by Keith Pattison.

In A Report to an Academy by Franz Kafka, Red Peter, an ape captured on the Gold Coast of Africa by a German hunting party, eventually gains his release from captivity by learning to emulate human behavior to such a degree that, as he put it, he “reached the cultural level of an average European.”  Which means that not only did he learn to spit, smoke, drink and speak but that he even learned to do a little soft shoe on the side!  Subsequently asked to address a distinguished group on the subject of his prior life as an ape, Red Peter demurred, using the opportunity instead to expound on the human condition itself.

Kafka’s story has lent itself to various interpretations.  It may be read as a commentary on man’s inflated sense of his own importance, oblivious to his true “ape-nature.” It may be seen as an attack on the arrogance of the scientific community in particular or on the self-proclaimed superiority of supposed “intellectuals” in general.  One might focus on the illusory nature of “freedom” (Red Peter questions, for example, the “freedom” of trapeze artists to do anything other than what they have been choreographed to do in their rigidly structured routines and he makes a particular point of emphasizing that he never sought “freedom” for himself but only “a way out”).  Thought may be given to the choices one must make in life when there appear to be no good choices at all (for Red Peter that came down to a choice between the Zoological Gardens and the variety stage).  Some have read the play as addressing the issue of the exploitation of indigenous peoples under colonial regimes.  And special emphasis has been placed on the story’s being a satirical treatment of the assimilation of Jews into European society (an insight which, to my mind, seems particularly valid since the story was first published in Der Jude, a Zionist magazine edited by Martin Buber).

These interpretations are not mutually exclusive, of course.  Indeed, I think that there is merit to all of them which may well be what makes the story so gripping: it provokes us to think deeply not of only one issue but of very many.

Colin Teevan adapted Kafka’s story for the stage as Kafka’s Monkey and the play, starring Kathryn Hunter as Red Peter, opened at the Young Vic Theatre in London in 2009 to rave reviews.  Now Theatre for a New Audience, in association with Baryshnikov Arts Center, has brought the play to the United States, where it is premiering at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on West 37th Street in midtown Manhattan.

The play itself is a fine adaptation of Kafka’s work and on the stage it is brought to life in a way that the printed page alone simply cannot accomplish.  Less than an hour long, it is both dramatic and comedic, thought provoking and entertaining.  But it is Ms Hunter’s solo performance as Red Peter that is truly extraordinary.

Dressed in white tie, tails and a bowler hat, but ambling on stage like a chimpanzee, Ms Hunter is neither man nor ape (or perhaps she is both), sometimes emphasizing the human aspect of her dual personality and at other times the simian.  She cavorts about the stage, climbs the walls, contorts her body into positions one would have thought possible for an ape but not for one of our own species.  She engages her audience, shaking hands with one audience member (as only an ape might shake hands) in a gesture of openness.  She shares a banana with another   She inveighs upon a third to safeguard her flask of rum.  She grooms yet a fourth, delicately picking the lice from his hair!

And she provides the entire audience with a wonderful hour’s entertainment that will long be remembered and remarked upon as one of the high points of the theatrical stage.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Off Broadway: Good With People

L-R: Andrew Scott-Ramsay and Blythe Duff in GOOD WITH PEOPLE. Photo by Carol Rosegg

David Harrower’s Good With People, an edgy, existential, hour-long, one-act, two-hander set in Helensburgh, Scotland, is currently enjoying its US premiere as part of the 2013 Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan.  As the play begins, Evan (Andrew Scott-Ramsay) has just returned to Helensburgh, having spent the last seven years as a volunteer nurse in Pakistan.  He checks into the Seaview Hotel, only to be confronted by Helen (Blythe Duff), the hotel’s receptionist and the mother of one of Evan’s former classmates.  The sexual tension between the twenty-something Evan and the middle-aged Helen is evident from the get-go but so, too, are a number of other unresolved issues: the questionable relationship that existed between Evan and Helen’s son, Jack; the inherent conflict between residents of the town’s nuclear naval base (of which Evan was a member) and the town’s war protesters; Helen’s own strained marriage; and Helensburgh’s social class distinctions.

The play starts out in most promising fashion.  The playwright has a wonderful ear for dialogue and the banter between Evan and Helen is highly charged.  And the suggestions that there are strange mysteries to be solved – What, actually, did occur between Evan and Jack in the past and where is Jack now?  Whatever prompted Evan to volunteer to become a Red Cross nurse in Pakistan in the first place?  What really are Helen’s feelings for Evan? – all seem to portend an exciting theatrical experience in the offing.

Alas, it was not to be.  The answers we ultimately receive turn out to be anti-climactic at best and trivial at worst.  The play which seemed to promise explosive discoveries rapidly deflates and the simplest questions remain unanswered.

But if I was disappointed in the play itself, I certainly was not disappointed in the performances of Andrew Scott-Ramsey and Blythe Duff.  They are both consummate professionals and, given the material they had to work with, they both do a very admirable job.