Written and Performed by Mike Daisey
(Public Theatre)

by Lee Blessing
(Primary Stages at 59E59)

Written and Performed by Matt Sax
(Lincoln Center Theatre at the Duke)

Book, Lyrics and Direction by John Patrick Shanley
Music by Henry Kreiger
(Manhattan Theatre Club)

Reviewed by David Spencer

In If You See Something Say Something, at the Joe’s Pub space of the Public Theatre, monologist Mike Daisey offers some pungent views on the state of national security, as relates to current world politics and the traditions of Xenophobic paranoia with roots in WWII and development of nuclear weaponry. With the kind of eye and ear for sharp irony that characterizes topical humorists like Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and George Carlin, yet more long-form-essay-like organization, Daisey brings a good deal of research to bear—academic and personal—putting it through a filter characterized less by cynicism or archness than by awe. He also does audiences the unique service of not telling them what to think, but rather presenting the data and his observations on it in such a way that we may have a little something to discuss and debate afterwards. A hefty, round-cheeked fellow, he sometimes seems like a karmic, liberal counterbalance to the Dark Prince who is Rush Limbaugh, with more generosity of spirit and less fear of audience reaction. If all the media madness surrounding the Presidential election hasn’t given you enough to think about and/or you’re just a junkie for this kind of thing, Mike Daisey is among the shaper comedy pundits putting “the scene” into perspective.


In Lee Blessing’s A Body of Water, a middle-aged couple (Michael Cristoffer and Christine Lahti) awake in a well-appointed home, possibly a summer house, near a river, and have no idea who they are, or whether they know each other, and if so, how intimately. Nor if the twentysomething woman (Laura Odeh) who eventually shows up at the house is someone who works for them, like a lawyer (which she at times claims to be) or their daughter (which she claims to be at other times). Mr. Blessing keeps shifting the paradigm, sometimes keeping the characters off-base by constantly changing the rules, sometimes even more insidiously letting them get comfortable with a particular possible reality, and then slyly showing them what may be a crack in what may be a façade.

                  The playwright is himself something of an anomaly: he has a very mainstream, colloquial style, yet he likes to apply that to experiments in theatrical genre. And here he is—clearly?—in the world of Pirandello, which is to say his agenda is to make the audience wonder which interpretation of events constitutes reality. The difference here is that Mr. Blessing is missing a fundamental technique that Pirandello always took care to employ: in a Pirandello play, reality isn’t controversial because the universe changes its configuration (a la a latter day Twilight Zone episode or the science fiction thriller The Cube series of films) but because motivation is rendered mysterious. (i.e. A man long believed to be insane, having adopted a historical identity, declares himself sane, though his behavior remains erratic. As complications reach their climax, he stabs the doctor sent to work with him, who is also the rival for his wife’s romantic attention. And then he resumes his regal persona. Whether he’s sane or insane the story tracks. The events are real, what’s mutable is the nature of causality: is the killing an act of vengeance, protected by the guise of madness? Or is it truly the act of a madman?) In A Body of Water, the story doesn’t track through each variant proposition of reality, and at the end, Mr. Blessing asks us to question even whether what we see and hear is real, let alone the truth about what’s behind it.

                  Though Mr. Blessing is almost always an entertaining writer (and remains so for a good deal of the proceedings here), there does come a point where you realize, not only won’t he give you the answer to the riddle, he won’t even give you the full riddle upon which to formulate an answer. At which point, despite fine performances and respectable direction by Maria Mileaf, it’s very easy to check out, mentally, and stop caring.


In an era where many people try to spend their theatre dollars wisely, Clay, the self-styled “hip-hop musical” for solo performer, may well be the best twenty bucks you spend this season. Midtown at the Duke on 42nd Street, the play (and it really is something more of a play with music than a musical per se) and its score are the creation of its current actor, Matt Sax. A press release says, that Clay “tells the coming-of-age story of Clifford, a suburban boy who escapes his fractured family and finds a mentor in Sir John, a master of the spoken word. Clifford becomes hip-hop star Clay, but he discovers that he can't escape his past.” The story is actually richer and quirkier than that—not shockingly original, no, but its treatment very much so—though it occurs to me that describing it in any deeper detail risks depriving you of the fullness of genuine discovery and revelation you may feel watching Mr. Sax (under the direction of Eric Rosen) do his thing.

                  And a mesmerizing thing it is too, not only the sharp musicality and equally distinct characterizations, but the way those characterizations morph and grow, the way he attaches movement-as-motif to them (especially striking, for example, is a father figure on the attack, late in the game, we’ve seen him many times, but now with each salvo he seems to rise from the dead, like a puppet with his strings suddenly pulled, again and again; it’s abstract and yet a perfect picture of a nightmare made real). A story and a performance full of pathos, passion, humor, irony and even victory, it’s worthy of inclusion with the great solo performance evenings such as Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight, James Whitmore in Paul Shyre’s Will Rogers’ USA, Mark Linn Baker in Lee Blessing’s Chesapeake, Alec McCowen in St. Mark’s Gospel and William Windom in A James Thurber Evening. Oh to be sure, it speaks a whole different language for a whole different generation—but it has the feel of something quite classic…


It’s been quite a few years since I saw a genuine musical theatre train wreck—quite different from a “flop” or a “show that doesn’t work,” or even “a bad show,” this would be such an incompetent, clueless mess that sometimes, things and people really do crash into each other, by accident and design—but that’s Romantic Poetry by John Patrick Shanley (alleged book and alleged lyrics, and while we’re at it, alleged direction) and Henry Kreiger (music, both woefully familiar-sounding and instantly forgettable—typos can be revealing: I just caught myself hitting the keys for regrettable), at the Manhattan Theatre Club. I won’t even try to sum it up, it’s so incomprehensible, save to say it has something to do with new romantic partners vs. old and the existential angst of love, and seems to have been written on a chemically induced or deeply schizophrenic stream-of-consciousness high. A good cast seems to be wasted and abused, though several bios attest to some having been part of Romantic Poetry’s initial development at New York Stage and Film. Which just blows my mind, because it means both that MTC had a chance to see this thing in advance, and that the holdover actors signed on for more. Yes, I know, MTC may have already announced it, and often for an actor work is work, but Jesus Christ. Yes, it is that bad, and not Carrie or Springtime for Hitler redemptively bad, just please-don’t-even-waste-your-curiosity-let-alone-your-money bad. Hold onto what you admire and/or respect about the prior accomplishments of the mssrs. Shanley and Kreiger and just make believe this doesn’t exist. Because history, in due course, I guarantee, in all but some data base archives, will do the same…

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