in Brief:

(Mitzi Newhouse at Lincoln Center)

STREAMERS by David Rabe
(Roundabout at the Laura Pels)

written and performed by Danny Hoch

written and performed by Mike Birbiglia
(Bleecker Street Theatre)

Conceived and choreographed by Martha Clarke
(Minetta Lane Theatre)

(Paper Mill Playhouse)

Reviewed by David Spencer

Saturn Returns has an interesting premise: it looks at three stages of a man’s life. What marks the moments of focus are the presence and departures of the most important women in his life. We see him as a young newlywed man, on the day he will impregnate his wife, who will later die giving birth to his daughter. We see him as a late-middle aged man on the day the grown daughter who has cared for him and lives with him finally determines to move out, going off to seek her independence and, also, alas, to later meet an untimely death. And we see him as an old man, seeking not only the help, but the companionship of a caregiver. The man, Gustin, is played by three different actors of appropriate ages (from youngest to oldest, Robert Eli, James Rebhorn, John McMartin). The women are all played by a single actress (Rosie Benton).

                  Lest it seem like I describe Noah Haidle’s play with unwarranted spoilers, I hasten to add, there’s not much in the way of fate that we don’t learn in the play’s first scene, because you see, we meet Gustin as an old man, looking back, reminiscing for the new caretaker.

                  And therein lies the factor that prevents this sweet, little play from being as meaningful or indeed even as dramatic as I think it intends to be, despite being sensitively acted (by McMartin and Benton most especially) and directed (by Nicholas Martin). Because as Gustin looks back, he tells us what happened. And as the flashbacks occur, we see what happened, dramatized. Oh, there’s added detail, to be sure, but it’s all exactly, in tone and substance, as the older Gustin told us it was; the character provides his own spoilers. Are there details and nuances that surprise? Mildly, perhaps; enough to keep things from getting dull—but there are no places where, say, the older Gustin has rewritten history or buried events that are too painful, or deceived himself, or others. In fact, quite the reverse: in old age and loss, he is painfully self-aware. So as the play progresses, there’s little in the way of suspense or the kind of revelation that lets a memory play rock, or at least resonate.


David Rabe’s Vietnam war era military drama Streamers seemed quite bracing for its time—it was originally produced in 1976—but seeing it anew in 2008 makes one feel like its time has passed by. This glimpse of barracks life in a Stateside army post, whose inhabitants hope to remain under the radar lest they get sent off to war, seems now to be one of those self-conscious exercises in shock confrontation, necessary then as a way of pushing the envelope and expanding the parameters of what could be acceptably dramatized, and perhaps what needed to be said, but now more of an artifact, not dated so much as exposed. Wherein the delivery of some of the characters—the openly flamboyant gay soldier, the rigorously closeted one, the good guy black soldier and the volatile black soldier—seem as much an assiduously selected cross-section as the party-ers in Mart Crowley’s 1968 homosexual manifesto, The Boys in the Band. Even the random explosion of violence, that makes up what is arguably the show’s signature moment, seems far less dangerous; though a touch of that may be attributable to the production.

                  For under the direction of Roundabout Theatre all-purpose mainstay, Scott Ellis, this revival, like so many of Mr. Ellis’s others (musical and un-), is accurate, understanding, ultra-competent to a fault, attention-holding and utterly professional, but never transcendent or remarkable. The ensemble cast is likewise completely competent and sufficient unto the task. I don’t mean that as damning with faint praise—even simple accuracy is far from easy to pull off—nor do I mean to diminish what must have been a lot of soul-searching work, because this kind of material requires it. All I mean to say is that, alas, those of us on the receiving end of all that good, meticulous work aren’t feeling the howitzer heat.


In Danny Hoch’s Taking Over, at the Public Theatre, the monologist plays, as usual, an assortment of characters relevant to his theme, but in this case, the theme is fraught with an ambiguity even he acknowledges. He is showing different sides of the gentrification experience as it has impacted neighborhoods dominated by ethnic cultures, i.e. black, Hispanic, Asian etc. On the one hand, general maintenance is way better, streets are cleaner, crime rates are down; on the other hand, higher rents are forcing longtime residents out, higher prices are making it hard to get by, and “whitebread” America is encroaching on the purity of the ethnic ambiance, often with ignorance and/or an undue sense of entitlement. There are things to be quite happy about, and no one wants to go back to the old ways, yet a pervasive sense of anger and resentment informs the evening—including a segment where Hoch even steps out as himself to read excerpts from (I assume) real audience members responding to his latest evening. There’s not a one of them, even the most reasonable, whose reading isn’t colored by a certain amount of disdain—there seems to be a lot of that if you’re not of my world, you’ll never understand, no matter how hard you try attitude informing the evening—and it defies you to level criticism, to be hip enough to understand or perceptive enough to find legitimate fault. If you're not "of the body," you're wrong no matter what you think.

                  As always, Mr. Hoch proves himself to be roaringly talented, a master of street wit and sharp, versatile characterization…but in the end I got the feeling that, by having no strong conclusion of his own, he was trying to make “society,” if not certain members of the audience, responsible for his ambivalence. And I have to say, personally—because all you can do with Taking Over is respond to it personally—I didn’t cotton to that idea at all…


While we're on the subject of one-handers ... there’s an interesting subgenre of monologue show that I think began—or at least conspicuously took hold—with Rob Becker’s Defending the Caveman back in the early 90s. It’s where a person who is really “only” a standup comedian shapes his act to concentrate on one topic for the length of a double set, and either by dint of organization or confessional, molds the monologue into a piece that is something of a play, i.e. sturdy enough that it can be assumed by another actor when the originating performer moves on. (Indeed, on Broadway, Becker was replaced by Michael Chiklis, and in the years between, Defending the Caveman has become a franchise, with numerous actors booked out to perform it regularly all over the world).

                  The latest entry in this category is from comedian Mike Birbiglia, whose Sleepwalk with Me is landing very successfully with its audience at the Bleecker Street Theatre, or anyway, certainly was the night I attended. To lift a description from the show’s own website: “In his theatrical debut, comedian Mike Birbiglia takes the audience on a hysterically funny and intensely personal journey through his struggles with sleepwalking and his reluctance to confront his fears of love, honesty and growing up.” Interestingly, as told, the sleepwalking isn’t a manifestation of his behavioral pathology, but rather something that exists side by side with, and enhances, it, because it’s yet another condition of life he must learn to confront.

                  Birbiglia has a deceptively low-key delivery (like Steven Wright, without being so abstracted, or Michael Keaton, without being so frenetic), and compared to most comics, he presents himself as having been a long-developing babe in the woods about intimacy and sex; and with that “limited innocence,” to coin a phrase, works almost entirely “clean”—the four-letter expletives are few and far between—and also with a refreshing lack of hostility and outrage. Rather, he is an awed, often dumbfounded observer of his own life, trying to make sense of it all. Indeed, such may be among the key elements that distinguishes a standup “play” (such as this or Caveman) from a standup rant, such as those brilliantly delivered by Bill Maher and even more brilliantly by the late George Carlin. While the latter two are furious commentators who TELL you what’s what, guys like Birbiglia and Becker are on a quest for answers and understanding: a character is on a journey of discovery.

                  Birbiglia tells a quirky, sweet-sad/happy tale, and performs it engagingly, under the direction of Seth Barrish. I would not be surprised if he, too, found a franchise in his future…


The Garden of Earthly Delights, Martha Clarke’s mid-80s, hour-long choreographic rumination on the Hieronymus Bosch painting about earth, heaven and hell, seems yet another piece that was only bracing for its day. It’s best viewed now as a forerunner of the more adult iterations of Cirque du Solieil, and this new revival at the Minetta Lane is perhaps best approached as Cirque Lite, or perhaps De La Guardia or Fuerzabruta for people who’d rather sit than stand, observe than participate, remain in place than move and be at a safe distance rather than have the show all up in their faces. And I rather suspect its producers mean to tap into fans of the Cirque niche. I wish I had more to say about it, but I’d just advise you to search online for a graphic of the painting (the largest online reproduction would seem to be here: -- be sure to click on the image so it magnifies; drag the magnified version to your desktop and you can magnify it more still.). Take a long, lingering look. If a minimalist yet acrobatic dance interpretation of its contents seems intriguing to you, them hie ye to the theatre. And if not, not.


Finally there's Disney's High School Musical currently at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, NJ. And really, what can one say? It isn't truly a musical as such, but rather a bloated, tween music video wrapped around a cliche-ridden and archetype stuffed story, packaged especially for the high school market. It hit big on video and has inevitably found its way onstage all over the country, this incarnation mounted in a perfectly professional manner by Paper Mill's artistic director Mark Hoebee. You can't knock it for doing its job (heaven help us, it is bringing kids to the theatre in droves), and it's pointless to criticize it as art, because it never was. The best review I can give was actually one overheard at the opening night party. An old, experienced theatre pro related to one of the production insiders turned to a journalist friend of his and said, "I'm not sure what the hell it is we just saw. Can you tell me please?" The journalist shrugged and said, "Franchise theatre." The pro asked, "Is that like Masterpiece Theatre with a franchise substituted for a masterpiece?" The journalist answered: "Maybe. I dunno. The trick is not to think about it." And thus wisely advised, we sign off...

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