Friday, March 8, 2013

Off-Broadway: "The Revisionist"; "The Madrid"; "Clive"; "Belleville"

The Revisionist
Written by Jesse Eisenberg; directed by Kip Fagan
Performances through April 21, 2013
Rattlestick @ the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, New York, NY

The Madrid
Written by Liz Flahive; directed by Leigh Silverman
Performances through April 21, 2013
Manhattan Theatre Club, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY

Written by Jonathan Marc Sherman; directed by Ethan Hawke
Performances through March 9, 2013
The New Group, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Written by Amy Herzog; directed by Anne Kaufmann
Performances through April 14, 2013
NY Theater Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, New York, NY
Redgrave and Eisenberg in The Revisionist (photo: Sandra Coudert)
The Revisionist, actor Jesse Eisenberg’s meager play about a Holocaust secret, has nothing on Sophie’s Choice or a more recent play about the Armenian genocide, Red Dog Howls for shock value.

David, a struggling author desperate to finish a new book, travels to the Polish port of Szczecin where his distant cousin Maria lives alone. Why this New Yorker finds it necessary to spend thousands of dollars and travel thousands of miles when he could just hunker down somewhere closer isn’t explained, but then we wouldn’t have a play.

David and the 70-ish Maria’s interaction is rendered in broad strokes: she hopes to take David sightseeing; he wants to remain in her bedroom—she sleeps on the couch while he’s there—with his laptop. His narcissistic personality notwithstanding, the two call a truce over a bottle of vodka and bad tofu: he loosens up by reciting the “Who’s on first?” routine, and she admits her wartime secret, which puts a new light on their relationship.

This wouldn’t be much from a veteran playwright: from a moonlighting Oscar nominated actor, it’s attitudinizing and unfeeling. Under Kip Fagan’s direction, Eisenberg trots out his nervous tics as David; Daniel Orestes plays Maria’s friend Zenon (who speaks Polish exclusively) with good humor; and Maria, enacted by a theatrical grand dame, Vanessa Redgrave, would be a worthy protagonist in a better play. The lone authenticity comes from set designer John McDermott’s spot-on rendering of Maria’s apartment interior.

Falco in The Madrid (photo: Joan Marcus)
In The Madrid, the endlessly resourceful Edie Falco hits a wall in this shallow comic drama by Liz Flahive, a producer on Falco’s show Nurse Jackie, proving the actress is nothing if not loyal. Falco plays Martha, a middle-aged kindergarten teacher who leaves her classroom and disappears one day; after that, we follow Martha’s college-graduated daughter Sarah in the fallout of Mom leaving without a word.

Flahive’s play might have been onto something by showing Sarah and her father John coming to terms with Martha’s disappearance, rebuilding their own lives and dealing with Martha’s cranky mother Rose, a stubborn grandmother who can’t accept that she can no longer get behind the wheel of her own car.

Instead, Flahive is too busy avoiding the elephant in the room: why Martha leaves to set up housekeeping in a rundown downtown apartment complex, the Madrid, near where she, her husband and daughter lived in the suburbs. Martha never gives a straight answer when she starts meeting her daughter surreptitiously: we also discover that she’s run away before, including after Sarah was born, but nothing rings true to these characters; it’s a lazy conceit to avoid the deeper, darker themes her history suggests.

Despite director Leigh Silverman’s sensitive hand, an excellent cast is hamstrung by their writer. In addition to Falco, John Ellison Conlee (John), Frances Sternhagen (Rose), Phoebe Strole (Sarah) and, as concerned neighbors, Heidi Schreck, Seth Clayton and Christopher Evan Welch deserve far better material than they’ve been given.

Hawke in Clive (photo: Monique Carboni)
Bertolt Brecht’s plays still resonate, but Jonathan Marc Sherman’s updating of Brecht’s early effort Baal is an uninspired 1990s’ hipster comedy that evaporates while you watch. Clive is named after its rock star protagonist, whose downfall is shown through a series of scenes that wallow in his partying, screwing and eventual demise after he kills his one true love—and it’s not one of the many women he seduces.

Brecht’s anti-hero has been transformed by Sherman into a clich├ęd grunge rocker; and, as Ethan Hawke plays him—his peroxide-drenched hair making him look like Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong—Clive is gleefully amoral, and the actor chews Derek McLane’s imaginative post-industrial scenery in a role that obviously appealed to him because he could sing, strum a guitar, snort coke, scream and screw nearly everyone onstage.

The other problem is that director Ethan Hawke allows everyone else to ham it up, mitigating his own unsubtle star turn. Vincent d’Onofrio gives an epically lunatic performance as Doc, Clive’s closest friend, barking, howling, and braying, all in a Southern accent. Brooks Ashmanskas wanders around in wide-eyed bluster, Zoe Kazan pretty much disappears every time she walks on as one of several interchangeable women whom Clive discards, and the playwright himself plays a few roles without distinction.

In keeping with the Brechtian spirit, the performers’ dialogue includes their stage directions, and the songs warbled include Brecht and Kurt Weill’s classic “Alabama Song,” which in this context sounds as forgettable as everything else onstage.

Dizzia and Keller in Belleville (photo: Joan Marcus)
Amy Herzog’s inflated rep as a bright young playwright far outpaces her achievements. 4000 Miles, The Great God Pan, and now Belleville are weightless concoctions posing as something deeper, with uncompelling characters battling one another’s psyches and the playwright’s contrivances.

Belleville might be her worst offender since Herzog’s promising setup is completely undermined by her tacked-on “thriller” plot. Abby and Zack are a young American couple living in the unexotic Parisian neighborhood of the title (Herzog surely “discovered” it through the animated French whimsy The Triplets of Belleville). Abby is a failed actress turned failed yoga teacher—how, when she doesn’t speak French?—while Zack works for Doctors Without Borders. Or does he?

Herzog soon exposes small tears in what seems a fabric of happiness. At the beginning, Abby returns home and catches Zack jerking off while—he says—he’s playing hooky from his job. And Zack, who’s behind four months on the rent (which Abby doesn’t know), likes smoking weed with their Senegalese landlord Alioune. Abby is still reeling from her mom’s death years before, can’t handle not taking her medication, gets drunk easily and worries about her sister in New Jersey, about to deliver a baby at any minute.

When these dramatic shortcuts crash into one another, Belleville accelerates its descent into oblivion; when a large knife is ominously brought onstage to slice a baguette, there’s no doubt it will be used for bloodier ends later on. Far too much remains unexplained and unexplored: would Abby be so clueless about Zack that she wouldn’t catch on to his months-long ruse? Could a pothead like Zack function normally? Would a responsible mother—Alioune’s wife Amina—leave her baby monitor in the Americans’ apartment? And why end with such an inscrutable final scene, even for French speakers?

Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller enact Herzog’s couple persuasively, but are defeated by Herzog’s flat dramatics, which also hamper director Anne Kaufmann’s desperate attempts to ramp up thrills and suspense with a glacial pace. Paris is worth returning to, but avoid Belleville.

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