at the theatre: cock & tribes

Coincidentally, two of the more satisfying evenings I’ve had at the theatre this summer took place off-Broadway. (Perhaps coincidentally is the wrong word. Looking back on Broadway’s mostly disappointing season “inevitably” seems the more realistic choice.) Both of these plays do something most commercial fare would rather eschew: look at how we define ourselves – and where we belong in the social order. Mike Bartlett’s Cock is the more aggressively titled of the two and gives you a pretty good idea that you can expect to be grabbed by the dialectics. Should John stay with M, his longtime male lover or commit to W, the first woman he’s ever slept with? Far from the navel-gazing psychobabble you might expect, Bartlett’s take no prisoners approach doesn’t just hold up a mirror, it pile drives it into the audience’s face, proving that sticks and stones ain’t nothing next to a well-crafted equilibrium that’s been wholly upended. The four cast members are well matched but I found Jason Butler Harner especially heartbreaking as the older lover:  a man so clear-eyed about himself yet fatally blinded by his love. Reconfigured to provide the most uncomfortable seating imaginable, reviewers have commented how the space at the Duke Theater cleverly resembles a cockfighting pit but for me it was aesthetically far grander – like a Roman amphitheater. Gladiators of love, these people are lucky to escape with their heads – if not their hearts – intact. Nina Raine’s Drama Desk Award-winning play Tribes is equally combative, though it’s the bonds of family that come in for a right bashing. Billy, the fantastic Russell Harvard, was born deaf into a hearing family, and raised inside the fiercely idiosyncratic and unrepentantly politically incorrect cocoon of his parents’ house. He has adapted brilliantly to the family’s unconventional ways, but they’ve never bothered to return the favor. It’s not until he meets Sylvia (Susan Pourfar, equally exceptional), a young woman on the brink of deafness, that he finally understands what it means to be understood. Director David Cromer directs the intimate, in-the-round production, which has gone on to become the sleeper hit of the season. Raines covers a lot of ground, so much that clarity is often sacrificed in the face of so much sparkling badinage. Yet what makes it so compelling is the real family at its core and the divides they face. The struggle to hear and be heard proves a painful endeavor for all the characters. And ultimately some of their greatest triumphs of understanding occur, ironically enough, without resorting to language at all.


at the theater: the house of blue leaves & the normal heart

It seems as though every pair of plays I’ve seen this season  -  musicals, too for that matter – turn out to be studies in contrast and contradiction.  Keeping the streak going this week are a pair of eagerly awaited “revivals” that are technically making their legit main stem debuts. The House of Blue Leaves is John Guare’s seminal 70’s comedy about marginal lives touched by celebrity – and a visit from the Pope. It’s a New York play in much the same way Guare’s 80’s-defining comedy Six Degrees of Separation is a New York play: each oozes an essential New York-iness that rings true to those of us floating in the middle of the Hudson while casting a casual ambivalence over the shoulder at anyone who can’t keep up. Like the city itself, Guare’s best work houses comedy and tragedy on the same block – a conceit you either find wickedly funny or don’t get at all. Call strike one against Chicago-based director David Cromer, who – safe to say – falls into the later camp. I wouldn’t go so far as to blame his mid-western proclivities for the misguided mess on stage at the Walter Kerr but Cromer’s heavy-handed approach seems better suited to another play: The House of Bernarda Alba. Draining the play of comedy puts its cast of oddball characters in a straitjacket and doesn’t serve the able cast much either. Ben Stiller as the shlubby Everyman who dreams of Hollywood glory and Jennifer Jason Leigh as his opportunistic girlfriend expend so much effort playing to the kitchen sink that it’s exhausting to watch them after a while. More often than not it’s also a style woefully at odds with the play’s heightened theatricality. (Leigh’s part in particular is blessed with a redwood forest of comic zingers – it’s almost criminal to see her directed to swallow them down like so much sour milk.) Only Edie Falco, luminous and fragile as Stiller’s fresh out of the loony bin wife, manages to transcend her surroundings. Then again that’s not exactly something to be desired in an ensemble-driven play. Still, it’s hard to blame an actor for being true to the play; especially when everyone else seems to be auditioning for the indie film version. Surprisingly more successful, the revival of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is a reactionary, rage-fueled cri de coeur from the early 1980’s. (I say surprising because on the page Kramer’s play can come across as an unmitigated screed to the uninitiated.)  Bless Kramer and his anger, however. Though he might shock us to attention with his big mouth, it’s his storytelling prowess that holds us rapt as we follow a thinly veiled stand-in for the playwright as Cassandra, desperate to summon attention for the coming plague and fated to not be believed. Thanks to drum-tight direction from George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey and a superlative cast led by Joe Mantello and John Benjamin Hickey, it’s a story worthy of the Greeks, abetted by a silent President, a closeted Mayor, and an NIH more interested in Nobel glory than human lives. When Ellen Barkin as one of the doctors at the forefront of the fight finds her requests for research funding rejected she erupts in frustrated fury at the ineptitude of a bureaucracy that’s made itself complicit in the death of thousands (It brings down the house like a bolt of lightning, by the way.)  What makes it so potent is the knowledge that twenty-five years on this stage full of young lives will not have lived to see the present day. What gives us hope, without comfort, is that one man lived to shout about it.


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