“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at barebones productions

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a timely play in this political season in which citizens seem to be aware, more than at any other time in personal memory, that the system is rigged. Indeed, where better to investigate the means through which the powerful few define and shape the material and existential conditions of the powerless many than in a loony bin, where those in authority not only shape the physical conditions of existence, but also define and determine what constitutes psychological and emotional “normality”?

Cuckoo's Baseball photo by Lou Stein

L to R: Maurice Redwood, Billy Jenkins, Kim Parker Green, Randy Kovitz, Nick Lehane, Patrick Jordan, Leandro Cano, Michael Lane Sullivan (partly hidden), Dave Mansueto, and Mark Tierno. Photo by Lou Stein, courtesy barebones productions.

Based on Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel of the same name, Dale Wasserman’s 1963 theatrical adaptation tells the story of the hell-raising, anti-authoritarian R. P. McMurphy (Patrick Jordan), a convicted felon who has feigned madness in order to serve the remaining eight months of his prison term in a mental hospital instead of doing hard labor. McMurphy lands in a ward ruled over by the calmly sadistic Nurse Ratched (Kim Parker Green), who maintains her authority via a system of disciplining surveillance, psychological manipulation, and internalized fear that would put Michel Foucault in a state of awe.

Both the novel and the play wrap a parable about the insidious abuse of power by those in charge around a potent critique of the institutional treatment of the mentally ill. Kesey based his novel on his own experience of working as a night orderly in a mental institution, and the cruel, medically suspect practices his novel exposed – overmedication, psychological and emotional abuse, electroshock therapy, and lobotomy – were later used as part of the rationalization for closing down mental hospitals and deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill. That might, in hindsight, have been the wrong lesson to draw: for the acutes and chronics in Kesey’s fictional ward, the institution itself is not the problem but rather the fact that it puts them at the mercy of someone who wields power with no oversight, and whose only motivation is to retain that power. The play’s emotional punch comes from our dread about the foregone outcome of the clash between the cocky McMurphy – who is so confident he can best the system that he bets all he’s got on himself – and Ratched, who holds cards he doesn’t even know exist.

Cuckoo’s Nest is above all interested in how psychological manipulation helps those in power maintain the status quo. We see this most potently played out in a devastating confrontation between Nurse Ratched and Billy Bibbit, a young man so terrified of his mother’s disapproval that he’s rendered virtually speechless by a debilitating stutter (played with heartbreaking sensitivity by the superb Nick Lehane). When Billy, having finally lost his virginity to a prostitute McMurphy has sneaked into the ward, suddenly finds himself able to defy Nurse Ratched with fluid confidence, she instantly reduces him back to a stuttering cower by reminding him of how disappointed his mother will be when she hears of his behavior. Ratched’s use of her superior insight into the inmates’ neuroses and psychoses to keep them in a state of subjection to her will is a vivid illustration of the principle that knowledge equals power.

The play’s interest in the effect of psychological manipulation extends into the political sphere, as well. Unlike the film version starring Jack Nicholson, in which we don’t discover that the giant, silent Chief Bromden (the imposing Leandro Cano) can speak until well into the story, Wasserman’s play follows the novel’s lead in positioning the Chief as a narrator, interlacing his experience of disenfranchisement as a Native American at the mercy of dominant white culture with the mental patients’ subjugation to the power structure of the mental ward. Thus the play also functions to dissect the ways the system uses the internalization of racism to oppress people of color. The enormous Chief repeatedly expresses the belief that he’s not “big enough” to fight back, his vision of himself having been shaped by white culture’s marginalization of his people and his history. It’s up to McMurphy to help Chief realize the mental and physical strength that goes with his size; in many ways, although it’s McMurphy who sets the action of the play in motion and drives it forward, the character who has the most transformative journey is the Chief.

The barebones production is compelling and gripping. Director Melissa Martin has assembled a huge and talented cast to populate Tony Ferrieri’s eerily imposing mental ward, which, with its forced-perspective foreshortening, realizes in architectural form the equivalent to Ratched’s discombobulating menace. Barbed wire along the upper rails of the house pens the audience in the space as well, suggesting our own imprisonment in a system clearly rigged in favor of those who already hold power. Costumes by Angela Vesco complement Ferrieri’s disorienting set, with blinding white sixties-era uniforms for the institution staff and a range of pajama-like outfits for the patients that render them childlike and vulnerable. Parker Green brings a steely coldness to Ratched, offering a crystalline surface off of which Jordan can bounce his feisty, antic McMurphy.  In addition to Cano and Lehane, standout performances in the ensemble include Randy Kovitz, urbane and fidgety as Harding, a voluntary inmate dealing with repressed homosexuality; Michael Lane Sullivan, squinting and disconnected as Martini, a hallucinating schizophrenic; and Dave Mansuelo as the bomb-obsessed Scanlon.

“The Flick” at the THE REP

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I’ve had a copy of Annie Baker’s 2011 play The Flick sitting on my bookshelf for about half a year, but when I heard that the REP would be producing this play as part of their season, I decided to hold off reading it so that I could experience it first on stage rather than on the page.

I’m so glad I did. The REP’s production of Baker’s keenly observed play about three underpaid workers at a run-down single-screen movie house swept me off guard from its very first moment, when the barely articulate Sam explains the nature of the task at hand – sweeping up after the feature – to his new co-worker Avery with hypernaturalistic shorthand:

“We call this the walkthrough? …. Pretty simple. … You just … uh…”

That line is followed by a long silence in which the two men awkwardly begin to clean the floors of the theater between the rows of seats. And while that may not sound like a very riveting opening to a play, it is in fact totally captivating. For it’s as if we, the audience, are behind the projection screen, looking out from “movie world” into the bank of seats in the “real world,” eavesdropping in on the private, casual, and nondescript conversations of people who think they are unobserved.

Baker’s hyperrealistic dialogue and action – peppered with long pauses in which the characters, having nothing to say to each other, say nothing – offers a perceptive glimpse into the lives of three precisely imagined wage slaves in the service economy. It’s difficult to pinpoint, in a “this is the story” kind of way, what The Flick is “about,” because there’s no strong central conflict; rather, The Flick is a play that puts under scrutiny characters who are, among other things, mainly determinedly engaged in conflict avoidance. And under Robert A. Miller’s sensitive direction, the terrific ensemble of the REP production brings those characters brilliantly to life.

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L to R: John Steffenauer, Sarah Silk, Saladin White II. Photo: Jeff Swensen.

Sam is a thirty-five year old white dude who is still living in his parents’ attic; he’s the type who would have barely graduated high school and then spent his twenties partying to heavy metal while not finishing community college. When Avery later asks him what he wants to be when he grows up, he takes a longish pause before pointing out “I am grown up … that’s like the most depressing thing anyone’s ever said to me.” Sam’s quiet desperation is masterfully captured by actor John Steffenauer, who physicalizes the role with a guarded mask of a face, a choked, croaking voice and the slump-shouldered, half-awake, shuffly walk of a person who’s molded his body to the confines of his dead-end job. Sam seems slow of both thought and speech – not stupid, necessarily, just not quick with words – and Steffenauer fills the character’s hesitancy with a groping yearning that is both touching and comic.

Steffenauer’s powerful and understated performance is counterbalanced by Saladin White II as Avery, the new hire, and Sarah Silk as Rose, the projectionist. Like Steffenauer, both White and Silk underplay, giving the script’s pauses and hesitations their full due and allowing the stillness between lines to dampen “actorly” affect. White’s Avery is physically verklemmt, but he’s the most verbally ept of the group; son of a professor of semiotics and linguistics, Avery’s a movie buff with an aficionado’s capacious memory, and White modulates skillfully between Avery’s cocky confidence when the subject is film-related, and his stuttering insecurity when it comes to normal social interactions. Silk is fabulous as Rose, playing her with a vivacious insouciance that feels both studied and careless: Rose is a gal who’s always a little “on,” but Silk is firmly in the hypernaturalistic performance style of the play even as she plays with and “performs” for Sam and Avery.

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Sarah Silk and Saladin White II. Photo: Jeff Swensen.

The question of realness and performance is one that the play slyly dances around; at one point Avery tells Rose that his depression stems from his belief that “everyone is acting out some like stereotype” and later Rose accuses Sam of “performing,” both of which jar us into remembering that these are actors acting in front of us, even though, with all the pauses and half lines and inarticulate thoughts, it kind of feels like we are watching “real people.” You might think for a moment that this is a kind of cinematic performance transplanted to the stage, but then Sam quotes a few clichéd movie lines and calls attention to the artifice of cinema as well. And while the dialogue and acting style are ultra-quotidian, the play draws on all sorts of theatrical conventions – blackouts, recorded music, scene changes, etc – that keep it from seeming either “real” or “cinematic.” Baker’s play is at once compellingly realistic and provocatively theatrical.

Scene designer Dick Block has filled the small space of the studio theater with a very credible reproduction of a movie theater that hasn’t seen better days in a really long time. Small details in the set – like the handful of missing tiles on the mosaic panels, and the grime on the upstage walls – make all the difference. Details are also eloquent in Michael Montgomery’s costumes; indeed, you might glean practically everything you need to know about the three characters from their hair alone (Sam has a near-permanent case of hat head, Avery wears his hair cropped control-freak neat, and Rose, the most uninhibited of the bunch, sports a wild and unruly tangle of long dark curls dyed bright green on the ends). Sound designer Steve Shapiro threads scenes together with themes from old films, underscoring the disconnect and disjuncture between the cinematic “real” (which so often provides life with a soundtrack) and the theatrical “real” of the play’s many silences and pauses.

The Flick is one of those rare works that manages to be hilariously funny even as it’s breaking your heart. Director Miller lets the play unfold with a pace and mood that allows both its comedy and tenderness to flower; often, one or the other of these blooms in the awkward silences that settle between characters unsure about what to say next. The characters’ uncertain, cautious, and at times passive-aggressive hesitation to engage each other captures a truth about the modern social contract; its optimistic ending – dare I say its Hollywood happy ending? – indulges a sweet hope that dead-ends are not always what they seem.

“Laws of Attraction” by Attack Theatre

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Some laws beg to be defied. Take the law of gravity, for instance: how thrilling is it to imagine floating free of the pull of gravity?

Attack Theatre’s new dance work Laws of Attraction plays fast and loose with gravity as well as with several other principles that govern the physical world. The piece, which had its origins in a dance/science residency at the Winchester Thurston School, playfully puts dancers’ bodies in conversation with the mechanics of motion.

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L to R: Dane Toney, Kaitlin Dann, Ashley Williams, and Anthony Williams.

The space is a former auto body shop – bringing yet another connotation of “mechanics” to mind – with old chairs arranged sculpturally along one wall, a pile of cardboard boxes in one back corner, a large net of rope hanging on the upstage wall in the other corner, and a pile of musical instruments on a platform to the side. It’s a big playground for the five dancers, one of whom – Attack veteran Dane Toney – opens the piece by hoverboarding onto the stage and pushing around a table full of typewriters, on which he types a screenplay about a married couple that drifts apart and eventually reconciles, a framing narrative for the dance that offers a romantic take on the notion of “laws of attraction.”

The intersection between scientific principles and interpersonal relationships is a running theme in the work. So, for example, the choreography investigates magnetism both as a quality of attraction between a magnet and a metal surface, and as a mysterious chemistry between two strangers at a “Cocktails and Canvas” event. Ditto with the principle of fulcrums and balances, explored movingly on a seesaw that unexpectedly emerges from under the pile of boxes. The large rope helps animate oscillation (as the screenplay couple are themselves unsure of their relationship) and a ladder is mobilized in the examination of leverage. Clichéd phrases are wittily overliteralized, as when, after a dance set in which the performers fall and get up repeatedly, we hear, in voiceover: “You’re exhausting me; I’m tired of all these ups and downs.”

Hoverboards make several appearances in this work: they allow the dancers to glide around the room fluidly, like electrons in an atom, zinging through space without colliding. One of the best uses of the hoverboards in this work comes at the top of the second act, when the dancers use the hoverboards to indicate a Venetian canal filled with fish and then rats, followed by a tour de force pas de deux on hoverboard between Toney and Ashley Williams that tests Toney’s center of balance as he keeps the hoverboard moving while lifting and spinning Williams in a Latin-inspired dance.

When not on the hoverboards, the dancers display the signature Attack Theatre soft athleticism, absorbing and releasing energy like gently wound springs. The music ranges from recorded classical, pop, and jazz music to live acoustically-enhanced percussion and keyboard played by musician and artist Ian Green, who also produces a painting of the “Cocktails and Canvas” scene as the dancers enact it.

Mike Papinchak’s vibrant lights transform the space from scene to scene and make areas of the open space pop with saturated color, a saturation that is echoed in the hints of cobalt blue that peek out underneath the black and gray of Yu Su’s futuristic-oriented costumes.

In addition to Williams and Toney, dancers Kaitlin Dunn, Nile Alicia Ruff, and Anthony Williams helped co-invent this playful exploration of laws of attraction both physical and emotional. They bend and fold their bodies into cubes and balls, stiffen into planks, leap up walls, catapult through space, suspend horizontally in defiance of both gravity and logic, and balance and counterbalance each other in a graceful, athletic, and visually and aurally provocative evening of dance.

“The Master Builder” at Quantum Theatre

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You take the elevator to the ninth floor of the Allegheny Center and enter into a vast, empty concrete space with floor to ceiling windows and a 360 degree view that encompasses downtown Pittsburgh and its surrounding neighborhoods. Walking around the room, past small tableaus of midcentury furniture illuminated like museum objects in squares of bright light, you see the history of twentieth century urban architecture spilling out below you. And as dusk falls and you take your seat, the city lights up to form a backdrop that, at first glance, seems completely a propos.

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Hayley Nielsen and John Shepard. Photo by John Altdorfer, courtesy Quantum Theatre.

Halvard Solness (John Shepard), the “master builder” of the play’s title, is a visionary who once specialized in designing and building towers and churches; now, he’s at the height of his career and can pick and choose the homebuilding projects he’ll deign to grace with his genius. He’s also discovered, in late middle age, that his thoughts sometimes uncannily manifest themselves into reality: he merely needs to imagine, for example, that his apprentice Ragnar Brovik’s (Thomas Constantine Moore) desirable young fiancée Kaja (Kelley Trumbull) will become his employee and pliant lover and – poof! – it’s done, without his seeming to have done anything to make it happen. With Ragnar’s fiancée in his thrall, Halvard can keep the younger man from becoming his competition for new business and maintain his position as high-handed ruler of his little self-built fiefdom.

If you know anything about tragedy, you know this is a man who is ripe for a fall. But this being an Ibsen play, there’s a lot of back story to excavate along the way. Halvard’s fame and success, it turns out, rose Phoenix-like out of the ashes of his wife Aline’s childhood home, which burned down in a fire over a decade earlier and left him with a large plot of land to build his architectural legacy upon. But that fire also led to the deaths of his two young children, and turned Aline (Catherine Moore) into a walking ghost. Now at the zenith of his career, Halvard is paranoid about being overtaken by the next generation and, consequently, fatally susceptible to psychological input that shores up his narcissistic and overweening ambition.

That input comes in the form of Hilda Wangel (Hayley Nielsen), a young woman who had developed a romantic fantasy about Halvard at the age of twelve and who now suddenly appears to collect on a promise she claims he made to her when she was a child. Hilda dredges up memories, as figures from our pasts tend to do, and in conjuring his past self she wills Halvard into behaving like the man she has idealistically fantasized him to be (readers familiar with Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler will see a ready parallel to Hedda’s idealization of Eilert Lovborg – and here, the man’s failure to fulfill the woman’s expectation is also part of the equation). In Halvard’s reaction to Hilda’s dreams of him we witness the complexity of a great man’s great ambitions, and in his shattered family we see the detritus that accumulates in the wake of such ambitions.

The Master Builder is a complicated play, and the Quantum production refuses to make firm decisions about many of the questions the play raises. Is Halvard going a little nuts, as his wife and the doctor suspect, or is he merely caught up in the image of himself that Hilda reflects back to him? Is the play primarily an exploration of character psychology, as the acting style would suggest, or does it want to operate on the level of symbol and allegory, with its textual references to birds and towers and castles? Is this a story of generational comeuppance, or one about past chickens coming home to roost, or the tragedy of a hubristic man? I’m not sure that the production choice to leave the play’s ambiguity on these points unresolved is problematic, but I suspect my own puzzlement about what is at stake contributed to the fact that, when Halvard falls from his own building at the end of the play, I found it difficult to care one way or another about his demise.

Director Martin Giles juxtaposes the formal 19th-century prose of the text with a casual and modern sensibility in the acting, producing a strange clash that shouldn’t work, but really does. Imagine a fashion-forward person who pairs polka dots with plaids and pulls it off, and you’ve got the idea. Giles sets the play in the postwar era, and his staging echoes the formalism of the architecture and furniture design of the era, all clean lines, precise arrangements, and open spaces. Those eloquent objects artfully arranged around the room (Tony Ferrieri gets credit for the carefully curated midcentury modern pieces) are smoothly wheeled in during intermissions to serve as set pieces, giving the impression of a space that lacks clear boundaries between outside and inside, much like Halvard’s mind in the play. Alex Stevens’s lighting design – gamely overcoming the challenge of a very low ceiling – underscores the cool formality of the staging, while Richard Parsakian’s costumes trap characters in several stages of the trajectory to modernity, from Aline’s stiffly formal and almost Victorian mourning garb to Hilda’s late 1950s dungarees.

A lot of psychological depth is mined from this play by the acting ensemble, especially by John Shepard, who finds nuance and surprise at every turn and does a terrific job in a role for which he’s not well suited physically (he has too friendly a natural demeanor for the formidable and quixotic Halvard). But as much as I liked both the setting for the play and the directorial approach, they also seemed at odds with each other: the twinkling city and its evocation of the dreams and accomplishments of master builders past and present felt too large and distant a landscape for the psychological crisis that seemed to be the focus of the production.

“White Rabbit, Red Rabbit” at 12 Peers Theater

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You may have already heard a little bit about Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. But probably only just a little bit: secrecy is an essential precondition to any performance of his script. I hesitate to call White Rabbit, Red Rabbit a “play”; it’s not a drama with characters and plot, but rather a scripted piece of storytelling-cum-performance art, with a sly conceit: the actor performing Soleimanpour’s script does not know what he/she will be reading until the moment he/she has opened an envelope containing the script on stage, in front of the audience. From that moment on, the evening unfolds as a kind of meta-meditation on author-ity, coercion, and the ease with which humans can be manipulated into complicity in the oppression of others (or in our own oppression).

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Performer Ingrid Sonnichsen

Soleimanpour wrote this script six years ago, at the age of 29, when he was unable to leave Iran due to his refusal to serve in the military (a precondition for obtaining a passport). The script captures, for audience members living in more openly democratic societies, the dynamic of living under conditions of oppression by capitalizing on theater’s inherent hierarchies – that is, the subservience of the actor to the script and the implied contract of “play” between actor and audience. Both actor and audience members are asked to do many things in the course of the evening, and as in any theater event that involves audience participation, the (un)lucky sap who gets tapped may find herself doing something she wouldn’t normally agree to do (or finds psychologically, ethically, or physically uncomfortable). Soleimanpour’s mischievous move is to turn our willingness to go along for the sake of the show against us, exposing both audience and actor alike in acts of coercion and betrayal.

I’ve probably said too much; the program insert admonishes “NO SPOILERS.” So I’ll turn to a safer subject: praise of the performer. No actor can perform this play twice, so when you see White Rabbit, Red Rabbit you’ll see a completely different show; but I had the very good fortune to witness the masterful Ingrid Sonnichsen, who dove in gamely, adding a wickedly sardonic sense of humor to the performance and infusing it with warmth, honesty, and presence.

“Right of Way”- CorningWorks

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In the opening scene of Beth Corning’s new piece Right of Way, Corning dances a pas de deux with a series of descriptive words that are immediately recognizable as “gendered”: positive terms that get used to describe men (like “strong” and “virile”) cascade and cavort with the more negative attributions given to women (“overbearing”; “slut”; “bitch”). The words draw her on; she pushes back. Her body is shaped and pressured by the language; she tries to shove the words aside.

It’s an eloquent opening for a piece that seeks to examine the performative nature of gender identity. Taking more than one cue from Judith Butler, Corning’s opening emphasizes that gender roles are pre-scripted for us by social expectation; from there, Right of Way proceeds to demonstrate – through a series of short dance-plus-spoken-word vignettes – Butler’s central insight that gender is an act, a series of socially constrained and compelled performances that fabricate the fiction of a gender identity.

Corning’s partner in this work is the terrific local drag artist Jezebel Bebbington D’Opulence. In the first half of the show, both dancers appear sans makeup and glitz, in matching drab shapeless costumes, a move that signals clearly their refusal to “perform” a gendered identity, even as a voiceover insists on asking subjects how they identify themselves. But social expectations aren’t easily refused; a solo by D’Opulence reveals the challenges she faced growing up as a girl in a boy’s body in Puerto Rico, and another featuring Corning centers on the ways women, needing to be ever-vigilant of their safety, are refused the “privilege of obliviousness” that gives men full access to public space.

The second half of the show throws the performance of gender into high relief. D’Opulence emerges like a butterfly out of a cocoon, a Tina Turner lookalike in a bright red bra, tight sequined dress, and fantastically high spiked heels, and proceeds to read from Butler about how drag exemplifies the performative nature of gender identity. The incongruity between D’Opulence’s glam presence and the density of Butler’s prose is amusing, but I’m not sure we needed Butler to get the point: D’Opulence’s subsequent near-flawless lip-sync of Turner’s Proud Mary, juxtaposed immediately after by Corning’s rather less successful attempt to strut around in a tight skirt and high heels “doing” sexy womanliness cements the point home in a more spectacular manner. Femininity’s a performance, and just because you’re born with the right plumbing doesn’t mean it comes easy to you.

“Sex with Strangers” at City Theatre

Laura Eason’s new-ish play Sex with Strangers has been one of the most-produced plays in the English-speaking world in the last four or five years. From a certain perspective, its popularity is easy to explain. It’s what they call a “two-hander” in the business, making it cheap to produce. It’s set in the now, and one of the two characters is a smart, accomplished woman about forty years old, which mirrors the demographic of the majority of theater ticket buyers. And then there’s the eye-catching title, which practically markets itself.

Forgive me, dear reader, if that seems uncharacteristically cynical; perhaps I’ve been overly influenced by the bleak view of humanity that characterizes Eason’s better known work on House of Cards. But although there are things to like about this play (in particular, the easy, sharp dialogue), I’m hard-pressed to discern what it is about this play that has garnered such attention.

It’s certainly not the play’s central conflict – because, for all intents and purposes, there’s scarce much conflict to be seen here. The play opens with promise. It’s a dark and stormy night. (Really). Olivia (Megan Byrne), a 39-year-old writer, is enjoying a quiet glass of wine alone in a bed-and-breakfast-cum-writer’s-retreat in northern Michigan. Her me-time is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of Ethan (Nick Ducassi), a 28-year-old author of a popular blog turned into bestselling book called “Sex with Strangers,” both of which record, in distastefully lurid (and semi-fictionalized) detail, his prodigious sexual encounters with women he picks up in bars. Ethan is a huge fan of Olivia’s first and only published novel – one that failed to sell and quickly went out of print – and although he’s ostensibly come to this B&B to work on a screenplay based on his book, he quickly confesses that he chose this particular retreat because he knew she would be here. Oh, did I mention there’s no internet in this remote, storm-isolated house?

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L to R: Nick Ducassi & Megan Byrne. Photo Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

But Eason provides us with this Agatha Christie set-up only to immediately (and deliberately, I assume) undermine our expectations. Absent online entertainment, Ethan comes on to Olivia. She’s game, and they proceed to have a wild & sexy weekend, with no hint of malice afoot. The most contentious thing that happens is that he reads the manuscript of her new novel without her permission; she’s justifiably outraged for a hot minute, but soon he’s got her shirt off again and they’re back in the hay. By the time Ethan leaves for LA at the end of the weekend, he’s managed to convince Olivia to let him digitally re-publish her first novel under an assumed name, to see if she can get the audience she deserves with better marketing. This starts to feel vaguely ominous, but it’s a red herring; Ethan’s offer of help turns out to be a genuine gesture of support. The only moment of real conflict in the first act occurs when, after he’s left, Olivia manages to get an internet signal and googles his blog. Whatever she sees there clearly scares the bejeezus out of her.

But that’s yet another red herring. Post-intermission, the play moves to Chicago, where Olivia is grappling with what she has learned in the meantime about the online Ethan – namely, that he’s exactly what he told her he was, an asshole who exploits women sexually and writes about them in degrading ways. He shows her that her pseudonymously published e-book is getting great reviews, and she quickly succumbs once again to his charms. The play now starts to revolve around her ambition: Ethan helps Olivia get an agent and a publishing deal for her new novel, but when the book deal turns out to be a digital-only publication, he feels betrayed by her refusal to let him publish her work on his app instead. In turn, he takes her book and publishes it without her permission, which destroys their relationship but, in creating a minor publishing scandal, provides her with the publicity that turns her into a bestselling author.

A main reason this play feels so unsatisfying is that it is perpetually deflating its own stakes the moment they are raised. For example, each time Olivia confronts evidence of Ethan’s repugnant alter-ego – as when she overhears him talking to his agent in his rock-star-sex-addict persona – the scene deflects and the confrontation is deferred. As a result, the play seems to hang suspended rather than moving forward. That state of suspension isn’t entirely unpleasant – the characters are engaging and their repartee can be charming – but the evening feels like it takes rather long to meander from the meet-cute dark and stormy night of the first scene to its indecisive final moment.

That said, from a thematic point of view, there are some astute observations here about the digital divide and the redefinition of intimacy and publicity that has come in the wake of the social media juggernaut. The characters have complexity and depth, and there’s subtext aplenty for the actors to work with. You’re never quite sure what truly motivates each character, which I’m guessing forms a large part of this play’s appeal to producers and audiences alike.

The City Theatre production, directed by Christian Parker, serves the play well, with a cleverly transforming (and surprisingly large) set (Tony Ferrieri) and a very fine pair of actors. As Ethan, Nick Ducassi is at ease in the skin of the digital native who finds it unproblematic to be one thing online and another IRL. He lends a tender center to a character who’s a self-professed jerk; Ethan could easily come across as merely a duplicitous player, but Ducassi finds the vulnerability in the character so that rather than hating him in the end, we feel more than a bit sorry for him. As Olivia, Byrne is wry and wary – one of the treats in watching her work is seeing when and where she allows her character to let down her guard. Although I wished at times she might reveal a bit more of the naked ambition that drives Olivia (the script contains hints that Olivia might be playing Ethan in some Machiavellian fashion), she nonetheless keeps present for us the many conflicting desires and needs that motivate this desperate-for-success writer.

“Disgraced” at Pittsburgh Public Theater

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Ayad Akhtar’s new play Disgraced opens on a scene in which Emily (Lisa Velten Smith), a white artist, sketches her husband, Amir (Fajer Kaisi), a successful attorney of Pakistani origins, for a portrait she wants to paint of him after Diego Velasquez’s famous painting of his Moorish assistant, Juan de Pareja. The play’s final image is a moment nine months later: Amir face to face with his wife’s painting of himself as a modern version of the subaltern in the master’s clothes, in a lighting cue that suggests the bars of a prison or cage. Between these two bookends, the play traces the collapse of Amir’s carefully constructed American success story under the weight of anti-Muslim sentiment in the post-9/11 era.

The setting of the play is Emily and Amir’s tastefully appointed condo on the Upper East Side, one wall of which is dominated by a painting of a distorted moorish pattern, of the kind you might find among the mosaics of the Alhambra in Spain (scene design by Anne Mundell). This painting is Emily’s work; she’s an Islam-enthusiast who believes that the artistic and intellectual achievements of the Arab world have too long been under-appreciated by the West. Her embrace of Islam finds its polar opposite in her husband, Amir, who was raised a Muslim but now not only lives as “an apostate” (his words, not mine) but also actively works to keep his origins a secret: he has presented himself professionally to his (mainly) Jewish colleagues at his law firm as an Indian with unspecified religious affiliation (his mentor, assuming that he’s Hindu, has gifted him a Shiva). The painting is also Emily’s hope for a career breakthrough – Amir has arranged for Isaac (Ryan McCarthy), a curator at the Whitney and husband of his law firm colleague Jory (Nafeesa Monroe) to visit Emily’s studio and consider including her work in an exhibition he is curating. Like Amir and Emily, Isaac and Jory are also an interracial and interfaith couple: Isaac is a white Jew and Jory is African-American.

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L to R: Nafeesa Monroe, Fajer Kaisi, Lisa Velten Smith, and Ryan McCarthy. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater.

The play’s conflict is set in motion when Amir’s nephew Abe (Justin Ahdoot), a devout Muslim, prevails on Emily to convince Amir to lend support to his imam, who has been arrested for providing support to terrorists. A news article that mistakenly identifies Amir as a member of the imam’s defense team outs him as a Muslim to his colleagues, and the professional consequences that spiral out of that revelation crack fissures in Amir’s carefully self-fashioned identity. Everything comes to a head at a dinner party Amir and Emily host for Isaac and Jory, when Amir – having had far too many fingers of scotch – makes the kind of racially charged “confessions” drunk people really regret making and provokes a heated exchange of ugly sentiments between the two couples. The night climaxes with a revelation that precipitates a moment of violence that seems to confirm all the worst stereotypes about Muslims that Amir had earlier condemned.

Tracy Brigden directs a visceral and hard-hitting production, one that feels “real” even when the dialogue sometimes seems overwritten (as when Emily and Isaac indulge in art-theory-speak in the second scene). The cast is terrific, and the climactic dinner party scene is riveting in a horrifying kind of way. Robert C.T. Steele’s contemporary costumes underscore the quality of realness in the characters. Scene transitions pop along with dancing patterns of light on the floor (more mosaic patterns, lights by Phil Monat) accompanied by a kind of techno-Arab music (sound: Zach Moore) that underlines the play’s interest in both the past and present of Islamic thought and heritage.

This play offers a lot of food for thought about what it is to move through American society as a Muslim in the present day, and it refuses to provide easy answers or satisfying resolutions. There are things that are troubling about this play’s configuration of tribal alliances – the play’s suggestions, for example, that Muslim religious identity is ultimately essentializing and inescapable, or that American Jews unconsciously hold and act on anti-Arab prejudices, seem hard to fathom – but it’s not afraid of putting disagreeable and dismaying ideas “out there” for examination. It may be a play that, as a couple of recent critics have argued (here and here), succumbs to the stereotyping it also seeks to expose and counter: it certainly left me a little disoriented and unsure of what to think about it. The bottom line is that Disgraced is the kind of play you’ll want to talk about: bring a friend and plan for drinks to hash it out after.

“Miss Julie, Clarissa and John” at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre

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Mark Clayton Southers’s  Miss Julie, Clarissa and John takes the inspiration for its plot, character, and themes from Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s 1888 one-act play Miss Julie. That play – which was initially banned by censors because of its “immoral content” – centers on an illicit midsummer night’s encounter between Miss Julie, the daughter of a Swedish Count, and Jean, her father’s social-climbing valet; the play’s third character, Christine, a kitchen servant and Jean’s fiancée, plays a minor but essential role as witness to and scold against Julie’s dangerous (and ultimately fatal) foray into off-limits social and sexual territory. Strindberg considered Miss Julie to be one of his greatest plays, and I suspect he’s right: it’s a beautifully constructed gem of a play, one that captures a rich and contradictory psychological complexity in its characters’ desires – for each other, for social superiority, for economic power, for self-actualization, for human connection – and is brutally perceptive about the obstacles they face. One of the earliest successful naturalist dramas – a mode of writing that sought, as Zola put it, to adopt the dispassionate attitude of an anatomist dissecting a cadaver – Miss Julie offers some of the same satisfactions and horrors you might get from witnessing a gruesome train wreck: you don’t want to look, but you can’t help yourself. Despite the fact that Miss Julie may also be one of the most misogynist plays in the dramatic canon, I’ve always – perversely, I suppose – loved this play; so when I heard that Pittsburgh Playwrights would be mounting an adaptation of it, my geeky little heart went pit-a-pat with anticipation.

Southers makes a number of smart and provocative choices in his reworking of Strindberg’s material. The smartest of those choices is his setting of the play in the Reconstruction Era South. Here, Miss Julie (Tami Dixon) is the daughter of a tobacco plantation owner; John (Kevin Brown) and Clarissa (Chrystal Bates) are former slaves who have stayed on as domestic help to the aging, infirm Captain Hodge as the plantation slides into post-Civil War disrepair. The transposition of the Swedish class dynamic into an American class and race dynamic makes the play’s stakes fresh, familiar, and urgent: we know immediately, and viscerally, how fraught the sexual game Miss Julie initiates with John would have been for both players at that time and place in history. Another smart choice on Southers’s part involves Clarissa’s expanded role in the story, which hinges on her parentage: Clarissa is the offspring of Captain Hodge and one of his former slaves, Odessa, who mysteriously vanished some time before the rest of the plantation’s slaves were emancipated. Clarissa’s unacknowledged status as Julie’s half-sister, and her ongoing bereavement over the disappearance of her mother, adds dimension, depth, and pathos to the cat and mouse game between John and Julie, haunting the present-day action with the devastating physical and psychological torture suffered by slaves at the hands of enslavers.

Miss Julie

L to R: Tami Dixon & Chrystal Bates. Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre

While the expansion of the story to encompass a richer and more sociopolitically charged backstory for Clarissa is a good thing, the play would benefit from some judicious editing, particularly in the first act, which is heavier on exposition than it needs to be. Hewing more tightly to the original structure of Strindberg’s play – which compresses the action into a more or less continuous sequence of events, without scene breaks or intermissions – would lend this adaptation a tauter mood as well. But though the play’s structure feels baggy, Southers has a deft touch with dialogue, equal, in its subtle shading of character, to what we find in Strindberg in translation. The characters’ language rings authentic and honest, a quality echoed by the rough sawn pine planks and simple utensils of the rustic (former slave’s quarter?) kitchen in which all of the action takes place (the apropos scene design is by Tony Ferrieri). Director Monteze Freeland uses the staging well to underscore the status differentials among the characters and to triangulate the action as power shifts from one to the other. The ensemble here is strong: Chrystal Bates starts off as something of a cypher as Clarissa – and at times her lines are a bit difficult to understand – but she is heartbreaking in her vulnerability by the end of the play. Kevin Brown tiptoes on eggshells across the treacherous terrain of black/white male/female relations mapped out before him by Julie’s power-tripping sexual advances: you can’t but squirm with John as he tries valiantly to navigate the Sophie’s choice this solstice evening presents him with. And as Julie, Tami Dixon tackles a character almost as difficult as last year’s Blanche in Streetcar, with nearly as many contradictions and hidden motives and self-deceptions; her downward spiral, at the end, when she’s got what she wished for and realizes the cost, is a masterful moment of recognition and reversal.

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