Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Off-Broadway: Sept. 11 Revisited; Hearts vs. Minds

Sweet and Sad
Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Starring Jon DeVries, Shuler Hensley, Maryann Plunkett, Laila Robins, Jay O. Sanders, J. Smith-Cameron

Performances through September 25, 2011
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street

Written by Itamar Moses
Directed by Pam Mackinnon
Starring Brian Avers, Aubrey Dollar, Meredith Forlenza, Karl Miller

Performances through September 25, 2011
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street

The Apple family in Sweet and Sad (photo by Joan Marcus)
Civilized people having civil conversations, Richard Nelson’s stock-in-trade, reached its apogee with last fall’s That Hopey Changey Thing. Too bad that such lively talk turns dull in Sweet and Sad, a Hopey Changey sequel that finds the Apple family of the Hudson River town of Rhinebeck together on the afternoon of September 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that changed America.

Where Hopey Changey was filled with delicious, diverting political discourse, Sweet and Sad merely marks time as its characters dance around one another, discussing any little thing to avoid the September 11 elephant in the room: their avoiding “big” topics makes the rest of the dialogue a muddle. (That Nelson has Marian Apple’s teenage daughter commit suicide some months before the play begins smacks of dramatic desperation, an attempt to conjure an event that‘s as personally cataclysmic and traumatic as September 11 was for our collective psyche.)

Indeed, it’s not until the last 30 minutes, when they can no longer avoid the issue, that talk returns to 10 years earlier and their emotions finally, touchingly well up. Nelson uses Walt Whitman’s The Wound Dresser not only for his play’s title but also to pad his running time. Uncle Ben recites the poem as a run-through for his doing the same at a memorial service later that evening, and its vivid description of the Civil War’s horror makes an obvious if unoriginal parallel to our unbrave new post-September 11 world.

The acting sextet (comprising Jon DeVries, Shuler Hensley, Maryann Plunkett, Laila Robins, Jay O. Sanders and J. Smith-Cameron) is as good an ensemble as in the previous play, and Nelson says he will return to the Apple family for at least two more episodes in their lives. Let’s hope that the Apples (and Nelson) can get back on track, conversing pointedly as in Hopey Changey, rather than wanly as in Sweet and Sad.

Karl Miller and Aubrey Dollar in Completeness (photo by Joan Marcus)
Completeness is an overstuffed romantic comedy about exceptionally smart people--graduate students and their professors--who are more adept with their minds than their hearts. Itamar Moses’ play nods to Tom Stoppard’s and Michael Frayn’s work in its melding of the cerebral and the romantic, his characters alternating between spouting arcane, nearly incomprehensible (to this layman) gibberish about mathematical theories and problems to solve, then stammering, hemming and hawing about their inability to find love that’s satisfying.

The play revolves around computer scientist Elliot and molecular biologist Molly, grad students who leave their current lovers (his another grad student, Lauren, hers her faculty advisor, Don) to get together. But they discover that being compatible physically and mathematically doesn’t mean they are soul mates. Moses does, however, provide an open ending, where it’s possible that they may try again, which may end in failure like their attempted problem-solving through algorithms.

Moses’ uneven dialogue never gets a handle on these people. While they run their mouths about mathematical matters, they pepper their talk with inarticulate interjections like “like” and “f++k” and other unscientific terminology. If Moses was taking satirical swipes at these supposed brilliant characters by showing how they become tongue-tied when dealing with matters of the heart, that would be one thing, but since they speak like that all the time, that’s doubtful.

Pam Mackinnon directs energetically, but she’s flummoxed by the wrongheaded scene where the two supporting actors appear in front of the audience as themselves to no discernible point. On David Zinn’s nicely appointed set that stands in for student apartments and school study areas, a fine acting quartet acquits itself well, particularly in the schizophrenic dialogue they‘re forced to say.

In all, despite its allusions to high science and higher love, Completeness feels strangely incomplete.

No comments: