Sunday, October 15, 2006

Fall Theater Roundup

Written by Eric Bogosian

The Treatment
Written by Eve Ensler

Seven Guitars
Written by August Wilson

(title of show)
A musical by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell

Debuting in 1994, Eric Bogosian's play Suburbia follows post-high school loafers hanging around a 7-11 store, cleverly quipping in inimitable Bogosian style. The play's original production had serious actors including Josh Hamilton and Martha Plimpton, which cannot be said about Richard Linklater's dull 1996 movie adaptation, yet another of that director's unillustrious flicks to sink without a trace.

A new production of Suburbia at off-Broadway's Second Stage Theater is directed by Bogosian's wife Jo Bonney and stars several interesting young actors. The dozen years since the play's premiere have given the seemingly pointless meanderings of this group of teens and twenty-somethings a new urgency, making Suburbia far more persuasive during Bush II than it was in the Clinton years.

Suburbia centers on Jeff, smart but as addle-brained as his best friend, Tim, an angry alcoholic just returned from Iraq. Jeff's girlfriend, Sooze, is a performance artist whose impending move to New York to study art has him frazzled. There's also Bee-Bee, a recovering addict who works as a nurse's aide; and Buff, the resident clown, talks, roller blades, jumps around, smokes and drinks non-stop.

Returning home is Pony, local kid made big, a rising rock star; he brings his bimboish assistant Erica along. All this takes place in front of the 7-11 run by Nazer and Pakeeza, brother and sister from Pakistan.

Bogosian writes believably youthful dialogue--peppered with sexual innuendos, vulgarities, and insults--and he's updated his script with references to the internet, iPods, cell phones, even Operation Iraqi Freedom. Most authentic are the two songs Pony performs for his fawning friends: with words by Bogosian and music by Michael Esper, the actor playing Pony, they're the kind of earnest tunes popularized by John Mayer and Jack Johnson.

Still, a play like Suburbia doesn't need to be deep to be effective, as his solo performances have shown of Bogosian's caricatures. Bonney, always a clever stage director, molds her cast into a cohesive whole, the actors playing off each other like seasoned pros. To single out two: Kiernan Culkin is particularly good at finding the core of humanity underneath Buff's stoner exterior, and Jessica Capshaw does wonders with the flimsily-written cheesecake role of Erica.


Eve Ensler, best known for "The Vagina Monologues," gives herself a tough assignment with her new play The Treatment: to develop a plausible relationship between a male soldier trying to adjust to civilian life returning from Iraq and the female military psychiatrist assigned to his case. Ensler hints at what our military men and women are being subjected to several thousand miles away, but rarely gets below the surface of her immense subject.

The Iraq War is never mentioned, but the nameless protagonist's haunted memories of atrocities seen and committed point to the current conflict, as does the nameless shrink's final spiel, as she admits that her interest in his case is also evidence-building against superiors who allowed such things to happen on their watch.

The Treatment, then, is an indictment of the Bush administration's disastrous post-Sept. 11 policies, which is preaching to the choir in an off-Broadway theater; during its 70 minutes, this superficial cat-and-mouse game is enlivened by its actors. Dylan MacDermott tears into the soldier with a ferocity he's rarely shown in movies or on TV: screaming, crying, beating himself up, stripping himself naked (literally and figuratively), MacDermott is fully persuasive. The same holds true for Portia, acquitting herself well while mostly just reacting to MacDermott's battle-fatigued ranting. But there's no nuance to her character: she admits her underlying motives by literally climbing onto a soapbox to give a polemical speech about holding the masters of war accountable.

It's obviously what Ensler's been building toward, but it has the hollow ring of a shrill op-ed piece. At least this seriously flawed play confronts, head-on, our military and moral quagmire.


Finished prior to his death last fall at age 60, August Wilson's 10-work cycle of plays about the black American experience throughout the 20th century is set in each decade in Pittsburgh, Wilson's hometown. Like several of the other plays, Seven Guitars is rambling, unfocused and too long. But it's also genuinely humane, its characters living their ordinary lives as honestly as they know how, even if that includes much heartbreak, sadness and death.

For the Signature Theatre Company's staging, actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson (himself a Tony winner from the play's Broadway run) sits in the director's chair, and he's perfectly attuned to the rhythms of Wilson's language and structure: it's unsurprising that a play titled Seven Guitars has lots of music in it, but Santiago-Hudson adds to the musicality in a general sense, keeping the play hurtling forward even through its rough patches.

Seven Guitars is a story told in flashback following the funeral of Floyd Barton, a talented blues guitar player-singer whose personal life exemplified the music he loved. Floyd loved Vera, the no-nonsense woman he's already left once, when he went to Chicago to record his lone hit song with a younger gal who, he said, wanted to believe in him, unlike Vera.

Vera lives next door to Louise, the tough-as-nails neighbor who keeps an eye on the elderly Hedley, a scripture-spouting madman who runs a small store. Also on hand are Floyd's fellow musicians-Canewell, who plays the harmonica and pines for Vera, and Red Carter, a drummer who also spouts clever nuggets of wisdom-and Louise's beautiful niece Ruby, escaping from trouble down in Alabama.

By giving his characters ample breathing room and space to discuss their lives, loves and losses, Wilson creates a rare kind of empathy in contemporary American theater-the audience comes to cherish all these characters by play's end, even if they commit acts of adultery, robbery or even murder. Best of all, Wilson gives these people the dignity of their own speech, their own particular way of communicating (or not): there are several long soliloquies throughout Seven Guitars, and the one by Floyd--which is punctuated at its end by a stirringly heartfelt sung rendition of the "Lord's Prayer"--is a gloriously theatrical moment.

Santiago-Hudson's directing cuts right to the heart of these characters, and his casting of seven able actors is the biggest proof of his affinity for Wilson's work. These actors are exceptional mouthpieces for the playwright: not once does a line of dialogue-no matter how stilted-sound false coming out of their mouths.

If there's a sense of long-windedness during the second act, that's the playwright's minor error; this production of Seven Guitars makes us hunger for more Wilson at the Signature. Next, in November, is Two Trains Running.


Who wouldn't be entertained by a little musical about the making of a little musical, including the difficulties and triumphs involved in the creation of a hit show from scratch?

For all its cleverness, however, (title of show) is shrill and inconsequential. If spending 90 minutes with four actors who play themselves enacting the thought processes that go into the creation of a musical entitled (title of show) sounds grim, it's even grimmer when you're in your seat, watching and hearing this quartet joke and sing about just how banal and boring making a banal and boring musical really is.

The blueprint, of course, is 8-1/2, Fellini's classic starring Marcello Mastroianni as a director not knowing what film he is going to make next. Fellini brilliantly hit on the idea of showing his alter ego in that no-man's-land when creativity is in stasis. But Fellini never simply narrowed the focus to the creative block of one artist-the canvas was extended to the world around him...his wife, his mistresses, his producers, his family, even his fantasies. Fellini was then able to illuminate that world: everything from politics and culture to relationships and even psychiatric analysis went into the stew, making 8-1/2 a one-of-a-kind work of art that remains fresh even today.

None of that is forthcoming in (title of show), although it's probably unfair to criticize four modestly talented theater vets for not approaching Fellini's high standard. But the fact remains that (title of show) is almost totally devoid of anything resembling depth: the entire show--every scene, every line, every song--is about the travails of putting on a show. There are pop-cultural references to TV shows and other Broadway musicals (which the "in" audience dutifully laps up), but there's never a moment where we think, "Hey, these people are interesting, they're complicated, they're real: I feel for them." If anything, the lack of such grounding makes these characters less likable, more insulated.

No matter: as the rave reviews and ecstatic reaction shows, no one is interested in complexity. Nor interesting music, apparently. Would that the musical's actual raison d'etre--the songs themselves--was less cliched and unoriginal.

Another goofy musical, Avenue Q, used its cleverness wisely; (title of show) is tame and tedious.

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