AISLE SAY New York
LIMITED RUNS FOR NOVEMBER
The Receptionist by Adam Bock
The Overwhelming by JT Rogers
The Joy Luck Club by Susan Kim after Amy Tan
Richard III starring Michael Cumpsty
Reviewed by David Spencer
I'm not sure I'm qualified (if that's the word) to review Fuerzabruta (which translates as "Brute Force") the latest entry from the Argentine creative team that gave the world De LaGuardia, which was, not incidentally, the last offering to occupy the Daryl Roth Theatre (off Broadway near Union Square) which, perhaps not incidentally, I just never got to during its half-decade run there. As I've said once or twice before, unless knowledge of a certain kind of non-play entertainment is in my wheelhouse, mostly what I am in these cyber pages is, in the general sense, a drama critic. You can argue, I suppose, that a show of acrobatics, spectacle and symbolism (and a lotta loud music) has a certain kind of drama within it—but it's truly not the same thing.
In Fuerzabruta a guy runs on a huge treadmill until its speed overwhelms him and to the sound of a gunshot he collapses and gets carried to a trampoline behind it. There's another wide platform on which a lot of wild dancing occurs. A transparent plexiglass swimming pool is lowered from the ceiling, low enough for us to reach up and touch the bottom as various nymphs and satyrs are pushed around by gouts of water. Swinging acrobats crash into walls of cardboard that crumbles on impact (that gets all over everybody including you). There are fog effects, you get schpritzed with atomized water and stage hands keep moving you about lest you get run the hell over by the bigass wagons that move about on the floor of the cavernous yet disco-jammed playing space (that's right: you don't get to sit down either).
The show is a little over an hour long, but exactly how "long" that hour is depends a lot on your tolerance for this kind of event. Mine is limited, but that's not to negate the experience. It's simply not my thing. But many were those around me having a wonderful time. This is performance art to the max, and if that kind of thing excites you, Fuerzabruta is likely to satisfy.
The Receptionist, Adam Bock's new play at the Mahattan Theatre Club doesn't express itself in Kalka-esque obscurity, but in fact it means to present a universe that only seems normal. The hub of the play is also the hub of the otherwise undefined "Northeast Office", a receptionist named Beverly (Jayne Houdyshell), a middle aged busybody of limited patience and selective consideration, who alternates chatting on the phone with family and friends with routing office calls to their destination and dealing with visitors and co-workers who enter her sphere. The co-workers include an erratic young woman who seems to outrank Beverly yet defers to her (Kendra Kessebaum), and an executive of deceptively mild disposition (Robert Foxworth). The visitor is the blandly handsome Mr. Dart (Josh Charles), also an executive, but one from the more formidable "Central Office." Where all this bland ordinariness takes on an odd hue is when we actually get an unsettling glimpse of exactly what kind of business the Northeast and Central Office does.
The problem with the play, for me, is that it (quite deliberately) never progresses far past the juxtaposition of mundanity with malevolence. It promises a development that never comes. As the punch to a 22 minute Twilight Zone episode, its eerie switch of perspective might have made for an intriguing reversal; but as the reveal of a 70 minute dark comedy—and not an ending reveal either, but rather something that sneaks in at around the 2/3 mark, it's a promise unfulfilled, and makes The Receptionist feel like a concept that never gets developed into an actual story.
You can't blame the actors, though, all of whom are spot on, Ms. Houdyshell even achieving near magnificence, nor the direction of Joe Mantello, whose absurdly versatile sensibility, here as in (so far) everything he touches, strikes exactly the right tone.
Set in 1994 Rwanda, The Overwhelming by JT Rogers dramatizes the unsettling reality of the political atrocities that don't get sufficient media attention in the US, because they don't involve US interests or jurisdiction.
Journalist Jack Exley arrives in country with his new, Afro-American wife (Linda Whire-Keeler) and teenage son (Michael Stahl-David with whom he's only recently become reconnected after his divorce. He is ostensibly researching a book but his primary interest is helping an old friend, a doctor (Ron Cephas Jones) who is somehow embroiled in the political turbulence and who now seems to be flat out missing. Jack's wife is a writer too, looking for the one sharp detail that will unravel a hidden truth as she too explores the political terrain. As for Jack's son, he goes on his own adventure with a household servant (Chris Chalk) as his guide: the pact the young man makes for his rite of passage, which includes trysts with a local hooker, is never revealing, even to his family, that the guide speaks English. Needless to say, each member of Jack's family has a completely different experience of Rwanda—but in the end all experiences share one commonality. Absolutely no one is who they first appear to be, the sides of good and evil are impossible to define cleanly, and America's policy of "hands off" may not entirely be indefensible, given the consequences of stepping in. Under the direction of Max Srafford-Clark, the cast (which also includes James Rebhorn, Boris McGiver, Tisola Logan, Owiso Odera, Charles Parnell and Sharon Washington in various roles) does a fine job, and the story is a tense "page turner."
What's compelling about the play is the complexity it delivers so clearly, with such intriguing characters and situations. What's less than cathartic about the experience, though (despite its building to a genuine climax) is that in the end, the playwright doesn't really have a point of view to put forth, other than to chide the audience for being safe and complacent, able to go on with their lives untouched by such tragedy, even when it is known to them. Well, okay: but if it's impossible to tell the good guys from the bad, why blame the outsider for not weighing in simply because he has the power to? As a kind of thriller, The Overwhelming delivers the appropriate atmosphere of racing and growing paranoia against a ticking clock. As political ideology, it's kind of a muddle.
At the Julia Miles Theatre, the Pan Asian Repertory is presenting Susan Kim's 1993 play adaptation of Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club, which examines four mother-daughter ties within Chinese families who have migrated to San Francisco, wherein culture clash throws both new world and old into harsh relief. Well, maybe harsh is not quite the right word, but it should be hotter than genteel, which is, alas what the production directed by Tisa Chang is. It's sort of agreeably acted by its ensemble of 15, rarely losing the unfortunate lilt of something conspicuously memorized. The raw material is all fascinating, as is the notion that, for all the cultural differences between American and Chinese society, there are universal, humanist truths...but the experience is mild and forgettable.
Actor Michael Cumpsty continues his relationship with off-Broadway's Classic Stage Company as regularly recurring Shakespearean guest star, but in Richard III, he not only gets to play the title role, but co-direct with artistic director Brian Kulick, who has previously helmed Cumpsty vehicles solo. Without having been in on rehearsals, it's impossible to know if adding Cumpsty's imprimatur is what breathed freshness into Kulick's once-striking, but increasingly stale style signature—the setting of Shakespeare in a kind of never-never land that mixes streamlined, contemporary design blended with period indicia—but for the first time in a long while, the strategy seems meaningful, rather than by-the-numbers. And setting the tone is, of course, Cumpsty himself, with a sly but unapologetically evil Richard who is unafraid to enjoy his villainy with a quiet cackle (yes, indeed, cackle) that seems to bubble out of a soul that oozes glistening, black decrepitude. As usual, Cumpsty's presence is commanding, but what also helps is that several members of the company (conspicuously not all, but a number, where it counts) are as striking as he, among them Maria Tucci as a browbeaten Queen Elizabeth, and Roberta Maxwell roaring divine defiance as Queen Margaret. It's not a great production, by any means, but it's certainly a very good and worthwhile one, streamlined and engaging.