I can’t remember the last theatre season that was so chock full with Plays of Ideas, much less good and notable ones with intriguing characters and premises, as 2007-2008. By Plays of Ideas, I mean plays that explore topics in articulate and provocative ways, through the interaction of characters uniquely positioned to debate them, because their positions on the issues are tested by their daily lives and actions. Two have opened off and off-off Broadway that are well worthy of transfer and open-ended engagements. A third, also off-Broadway, I’m a little less enthusiastic about, but it still makes for a worthy evening and comes as a bit of a surprise.
The first, by way of MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, is Grace, by British writers Mick Gordon and AC Grayling. whose (at least) triple-edged title refers to the main character’s first name as well as religious tolerance and a state of connection with the God-system of your choice. In the case of Professor Grace Friedman (Lynn Redgrave), she doesn’t much experience the third because she’s an atheist; and has trouble with the second, because her fierce conviction is that religious conviction is history’s #1 killer of innocent lives, the current wave of terrorism her most obvious and sobering evidence. She’s married to Tony (Philip Goodwin), a liberal and mostly non-religious Jew, but he respects certain traditions. While Grace and Tony make for an only mildly odd couple, it is their grown son Tom (Oscar Isaac) who provides the contrast that challenges family ties. Because he has discovered, in his middle twenties, that he wants to quit law school; for more than anything, he wishes to be an Episcopalian priest, and give himself to God. Unlike his mother, he doesn’t believe that the world can only find its equilibrium and reason when there is no religion—an expectation he posits as unrealistic and impossible in any event—but when there is better religion: religion that isn’t reactionary, but ideal and embracing. A concept that Grace finds equally impossible for its absurdity. On top of this, there’s Tom’s pregnant fiancé Ruth (K.K. Moggie). She’s okay with his belief system and career goals, but not as certain that she can take second place to God in his life. [As a sidebar, Ms. Moggie is an actress of Asian extraction. The text never directly addresses the ethnicity of the character, nor particularly suggests that she has one, but adding this but of multiculturalism, even tacitly, only strengthens the metaphor of the play.]
On a minimalist set, presented in a non-linear style with crossing timelines and flashbacks (all unannounced; it’s up to you to intuit the shifts and put the mosaic together chronologically) and a framing device that gives permission for this seemingly (i.e. deceptively) free-associative fluidity, Grace is an intermissionless 90 minutes of bracing thought and passionate emotion. Under the brisk direction of Joseph Hardy, the cast is spot on and Ms. Redgrave reminds us once again why she’s one of the greats. With care and the right marketing, this could be another sleeper hit for MCC along the lines of Wit.
Shavian dialectic is not easy to pull off. You need enough of a story to contain vigorous debate, characters varied and interesting enough to stand up to their literary functions as point-of-view symbols, and finally a locale or a backdrop specific enough to catalyze the particular arguments and magnetic enough to have inevitably drawn those particular characters together at this particular time. More than that—ideally—you want to write it in a way that it holds up Shaw’s tradition without sounding like Shaw. Oh, and did I mention? The arguments have to be compelling and multi-faceted enough to keep us giving a damn enough to listen to them for most of an evening.
This extremely tall order is met by John Ahlin with his new play Gray Area. The premise? Curmudgeonly NYC critic-about-town and acid tongued columnist Sherman Farragut (Keith Jochim) has, for his farewell address on NPR, duplicated in his nationally syndicated print column, toned down not a whit of his celebrated vitriol. But it seems that he has finally crossed the line that he never expected to cross. The Mason-Dixon Line. For in hurling his abuse at civil war re-enactors. “These flyover country bumpkins,” he says, “childishly refusing to come out of the past, are the very worst of actors, amateurishly pretending to defend some historical trench, which in reality turns out to be the septic ditch from last year’s porta-potty. Who could watch all that fakeness?”
Well, this just gets under the skin of three Southern Civil War re-enactors. The most learned of the three and the sort of leader-teacher is Keith (Mr. Ahlin), the dopiest is Horse (Aaron Goodwin), and the guy in the middle is Randall (Taylor Ruckle). And they make a plan. A plan to kidnap Farragut at his Philadelphia home and drag him to their secluded campsite down South and convince him of the error of his ways. And kidnap him is exactly what they do.
Not quite so easy, that.
Because you see these good ole boys are really pretty much good ole boys, and their intention is, of all things—fair debate, in various forms. And if their plan was conceived somewhat myopically, well…would a big city pundit like Farragut even consider talking to them (let alone taking them seriously) any other way?
There are delightful surprises and revelations along that way, North/South Civil War issues are very quickly seen in a contemporary context, and the debate, along with the human comedy fueling it, is fascinating. In the end, Gray Area is provocative and even a little touching.
Carps? A few. Being a product of off-off Broadway (albeit under the aegis of The Barrow Group, whose productions tend to be very polished), it hasn’t quite had the development time it needs to make the material optimally sharp. Horse and Randall, as the goofier Southerners, are a little too similar, IQ-wise, for too long, before the play begins to particularize their individuality with more than simply surface ticks and jokes. And the current draft is too long; it occasionally repeats itself—sometimes by way of paraphrase from a slightly different angle, sometimes by way of explicating in overwritten detail that which has already been made implicit and clear…but these are flaws that can always be addressed, should there be a longer range future for the show in more commercial venues. As it well deserves and as I hope there are.
Under the direction of Seth Barrish, which manages a balance between light and low comedy (not easy to do while maintaining a consistent tone, but he does, finding just the right proportion to make the juxtaposition of Farragut and The Boys play like the more complex descendant of Milton Drysdale and The Clampetts that it is), the ensemble is nothing short of superb. You never once doubt the illusion that these guys are those guys, being the parts rather than playing them. If any play of the season thus far has the potential to emerge as a sleeper hit…this is the one.
Finally there’s 2000 Years, a serio-comic look at contemporary Judaism achieved by focusing on an upper-middle class London family. As alluded to in my intro, this is the biggest surprise of the three idea plays, because it comes from the p;en of British playwright-screenwriter Mike Leigh, whose usually slice-of-life plays (and this is one) are often studies of people at their weakest and worst (and this is not one); moreover, this particular production comes courtesy of The New Group, and is staged by its artistic director Scott Elliott. The focus of the New Group tends to be distressingly dark, and Mr. Elliott too seems fascinated by dramatizations of depraved behavior, but compared to their usual fare, 2000 Years is positively sunny. (But only by comparison!)
Actually, on its own terms, it’s a dialectic play delivered very subtly via verite dialogue and situations. It’s about the shifts and ripples in the family dynamic when 50-ish married couple Danny (Richard Masur) and Rachel (Laura Esterman), secular by nature and practice, discover that their brooding, grown son Josh (Jordan Gelber) who still “lives at home,” has delved zealously into orthodoxy. One may well find it frustrating that Mr. Leigh chooses to have Josh in high defensive mode about his new passion—he rarely says anything substantive about it, but rather rants about being persecuted—but I think Mr. Leigh’s assertion here may well be that there is no knowing more deeply why orthodoxy is a valid choice, there is instead more to be gleaned from the reactions of those in the “tribe” who have turned their backs on it. And no so whimsically either, for in the past Rachel shares with her harmlessly querulous father (Merwin Goldsmith) there is a period of having lived on a kibbutz.
The play jumps the rails, though in Act Two: For a time it stays on point, introducing Josh’s leftist, activist sister (Natasha Lyonne) and her new boyfriend from Israel (Yuval Boim), and their philosophies are revealed by way of bouncing off Josh’s “conversion.” But then, as if the playwright decided enough with religion already, he introduces Rachel’s sister Michelle (Cindy Katz), estranged from the family for ten years, appearing in the wake of her mother’s death (weeks before; she was out of the country and has only just now heard of it), and assuming, with the sublime insensitivity that only the most oblivious and self-absorbed can bring to bear, the mantle of victimhood, spiced with a shrill sense of entitlement. Thus recreating her alienation of the family all over again. This is all funny and awful at the same time (and, it must be remarked, a glimpse at the colors Leigh and Elliott usually like to fly high, albeit even here not quite so darkly), but it carries the tone of an altogether different piece. Perhaps Mr. Leigh intends Michelle’s sublime selfishness to be the perspective-granting extreme against which any more humanist Judaism is preferable, but it doesn’t play that way…though it does sort of unite the other factions.
acted, meticulously directed, 2000 Years will not be, here, the sellout hit it
was in the West End and on US
tour—it won’t tap into an American sensibility in the same way—but
it’s worth a visit.
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