Leslie Ayvazian is always a worthwhile playwright to follow, always tackling interesting subjects in a fresh and yet sweetly humanist way. That’s quite a balancing act when applied to her most recent subject, the world of S&M erotics, as practiced, or at least attempted, by three pairs of male/female partners: a thirtyish married couple (Anthony Arkin, Jessica Hecht), a professional dominatrix/S&M teacher and a prominent Mayor (Candy Buckley, Richard Masur) and a retired couple (Ellen Parker, JR Horne). The play recently closed at Atlantic Theatre's Stage 2, so this is for the record and for the future life of the play in regionals.
Make Me once it gets rolling, takes place on three simultaneous stages representing separate locales (with a minimum of cross-personnel interaction as ideas get passed along from one couple set to the next), and wrapped up in 90 intermissionless minutes. While the Atlantic production was well-acted (under the direction of Christian Parker), Ms. Ayvazian’s script has a hard time keeping the counterpointed scenes from upstaging, as opposed to enhancing one another. Especially compromised is the older couple, because while the younger ones are engaged in externalized action and revelation (involving whips, handcuffs, and other such paraphernalia, mostly for show and for power rather than injury), the seniors are exploring the terrain philosophically, verbally, making internal transitions, often with elliptical language, that simply can’t compete with the visual business. While Ms. Ayvazian is always too good a writer to be dull, this mildly exhausting “three ring circus,” though dramatizing contrasts in approach and taste effectively enough, never quite implies a clear overall point.
While I do admire the New Group’s production of the award-winning South African play Groundswell, by Ian Bruce, I’m less enamored of the play itself. Here’s part of the thumbnail description from the official website: “On the barren, diamond-diving coast of South Africa, Johan (David Lansbury) and Thami (Soulémane Sy Savané), an ex-cop and a gardener from starkly contrasting backgrounds, maintain a beachfront guest lodge during the off-season while looking for a way out. When Smith (Larry Bryggman), a retired businessman, shows up one foggy night, the two men think they've found an ideal investor for their scheme to buy into a government-run diamond concession.” Of course, Smith didn’t get where he is by being naïve, so he resists; and of course things get out of hand. The volatility of the evening is too predictably set up (a potential weapon is a conspicuous early prop and a promise not to drink is made only so it can be broken later) so, also of course, only disaster can ensue. The sole tension point is how severe the disaster will be. And while that’s not an insignificant question or an insignificant tension, the inevitability of the desperation behind it and the schematic preparation makes it feel (or did for me) like story manipulation rather than genuine revelation.
That said, I don’t mean to imply that the play is its own disaster. There is a degree of powerful, passionate writing about South African life and dreams in the speeches, a surprising character secret or two—and the businessman’s character is approached from a fresh angle, blessedly free of expected cliché. (And in the role, Larry Bryggman, usually only a stalwart reliable, may be giving the performance of his career, the alchemy between role and actor is that dynamic). Under the direction of Scott Elliott, the Mssrs. Lansbury and Savané create equally pointed corners of the triangle. With some great accent work to match.
Sky by Susan Yankowitz (at the Baruch Performing Arts Center
on East 23rd)
concerns a brilliantly articulate astronomer (Jordan Baker) who is struck by a car and loses her
access words in speech. The play—in what seems to be a somewhat
revised, updated version, judging from a few passing references to pop
culture and technology (its original off-Broadway debut was in
1991)—examines the impact this has on her live-in lover (Jim Stanek), daughter (Lauren Ashley Carter), career (as represented by colleague Tuck
Milligan) and other
her life (various roles assayed by Dan Domingues and Darlesia Creasy). The performances are very good under
clean direction of Daniela Topol,
with Ms. Baker’s being far better than that, and the play, to be sure,
share of touching moments and interesting insights. But it falls short
in the arguably similar “genre”—Wit, for example—because parts of it feel
overwritten and attenuated; and it peaks too early, resolving its key
conflict, and thus the play, well before the author intends.
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