Book, Music and Lyrics by Wendy Kesselman
Theatre Row Complex

by Itmar Moses
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage II

Reviewed by David Spencer

The very best anyone can say for Wendy Kesselman’s musical The Black Monk is that it’s better than the season’s one bona fide train wreck, John Patrick Shanley’s ill-begotten musical, Romantic Poetry. I realized, when I opened the program, that I knew a few too many people involved in it to allow myself unguarded candor in public print—which probably sounds misleading; I don’t mean I would have written harshly of them otherwise, the situation’s subtler than that—so I won’t go into much detail. Which isn’t warranted anyway, as it will soon vanish, almost certainly forever. Suffice it to say that it’s ineptly adapted from a short story by Anton Chekhov and it’s about a young, newlywed artist who is constantly seduced by the vision of the title character, urging him to forsake all other pleasures in pursuit of his genius. (Actually, the Monk’s agenda isn’t nearly that clear or straightforward, but I’ve made the adjustment its author hasn’t, just to avoid having to explain its vague contortions.) Indeed, vagueness is the problem. The musical can be a fairly versatile venue for theatrical exploration, but it’s never a good vehicle for characters with existential crises, because at their most active, they outline a quest for something intangible, and musicals are all about characters aiming at specific targets, doing specific things for specific purposes, and revealing their inner life through the actions they take, and the consequences they have to process. The reason for this is that songs thrive on emotional urgency, and need something solid-seeming to push against. Here what our hero is pushing against has all the dramatic consistency of jello, and the show as a whole has about as much cohesion. Best tio leave it at that.


Steroid use as a metaphor for exploring the turning point when one’s character turns from righteous to dishonorable, is the subject matter of Itmar Moses’s clever, 90 minute baseball play Back Back Back. The dread word “steroids” is never used, nor does Mr. Moses actually spend much time on the physical consequences of addiction, but rather on the abstraction of what constitutes ethical behavior, and where the line gets drawn. (Even though this is not a musical, it’s appropriate to note the difference in approach between Back Back Back and The Black Monk. The existential crisis here may be about the subject of honor, but it’s made manifest by something concrete: the use, or refusal to use, a drug. When you’re presented with “hands on” issues and imagery, philosophical ideas become vibrant, because we see them examined in practical terms with real consequences.) Taking place over the course of two decades, the play focuses on three players: Raul (James Martinez) and Kent (Jeremy Davidson) as The Ones Who Do; and Adam (Michael Mosley) as The One Who Resists. Mr. Moses lets the issues develop in the same kind of gray area that allows for the rationalization of wrongdoing, which lets us in the audience viscerally experience the uncertainty that develops when peer and job pressure are brought to bear, and wonder ourselves what harm a little chemical enhancement can do. The magic of theatre is that we never have to pay the piper for our momentary ambivalence along with the characters who succumb, and get to use that experience as a barometer for real life.

       This is not to suggest that Back Back Back is a somber, pretentious or brooding play. There is, in fact, an almost gossamer lightness to it, and its trio of players breeze through it with wit, impeccable timing and subtle nuance. The equally elegant direction is by Daniel Aukin and one doesn’t have to be “into the sports world” (and I’m not, for the record) to be into what he and his compatriots are cooking up.

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