Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Off-Broadway Roundup—'Dada Woof Papa Hot,' 'Hir,' 'Night Is a Room'

Dada Woof Papa Hot
Written by Peter Parnell; directed by Scott Ellis
Performances through January 3, 2016
Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY

Written by Taylor Mac; directed by Niegel Smith
Performances through January 3, 2016
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Night Is a Room
Written by Naomi Wallace; directed by Bill Rauch
Performances through December 20, 2015
Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

John Benjamin Hickey and Patrick Breen in Dada Woof Papa Hot (photo: Joan Marcus)
Peter Parnell's Dada Woof Papa Hot, which takes a snapshot of gay and straight couples in today’s Manhattan, doesn’t try to provide a comprehensive canvas (what snapshot could?), but it does engagingly work its way through laughs, tears and the occasional insight.

A longtime couple, therapist Rob and journalist Alan have a young daughter who favors the former over the latter, which exacerbates Alan's own feelings of inadequacy, especially when the men befriend a younger, more successful couple, nerdy Scott and hunky Jason, the latter of whom Alan finds himself attracted to. Meanwhile, the men’s straight friend, TV producer Michael, admits to cheating on his own wife Serena by having an affair with Julia, a married actress.

Adultery is not exclusive to gays or straights, Parnell not surprisingly notes, and although the play’s situations, conversations, arguments, power plays, etc., are nothing if not familiar, Parnell’s lively dialogue keeps things crackling, and Scott Ellis provides his usual sensitive direction on John Lee Beatty's terrific set, which unfolds its various locations playfully and with a real sense of these very specific New York people. 

The very good cast inhabits its characters fully, especially Patrick Breen (Rob), John Pankow (Michael), Kellie Overbey (Serena) and Tammy Blanchard (Julia), but special mention must be made of John Benjamin Hickey, whose Alan is a forcefully realized bundle of flaws and damaged feelings. Hickey powerfully invests the play’s final scene—Alan speaking to his beloved daughter on the phone, finally secure in the knowledge she loves him as much as she does Rob—with the most emotional moments in the entire 100 minutes. It's worth the wait.

Cameron Scoggins and Kristine Nielsen in Hir (photo: Joan Marcus)
There's a thin line between absurdism and absurdity that Taylor Mac's Hir crosses repeatedly and haphazardly while taking on gender identity, patriarchy and whatever else deemed worthy of this spirited but confused farrago. When soldier Isaac returns home "from the wars," he finds house and home in staggering disarray: his beloved teenage sister is now brother Max, his macho father Arnold has been reduced post-stroke to a gurgling, dress-wearing infant, and his mother Paige has usurped the throne, establishing her own matriarchy. 

Although Mac has energy and invention to spare, his critical portrait of the ultimate dysfunctional family wallows needlessly in an almost casual crudeness: at varying moments, Mom bleeds, Isaac barfs and Dad wets himself, a trifecta of bodily fluids and excretions that happily precludes further discharges. The characters are so superficially drawn as to be mere symbols: of what, it's not entirely clear. Because Mac wants them to be so many things, however contrarily and implausibly, only sporadically does his satirical targeting hit a bull's-eye.

Niegel Smith's brisk direction can't harness the disparate (and desperate) strands of Mac's agenda, and the cast, while accomplished—Cameron Scoggins makes a sympathetic Isaac and the always hammy Kristine Nielsen manages to find the kernel of an unwelcome truth in Paige—is painted into a corner by Mac’s forcefully told but preachy script.

Bill Heck and Dagmara Dominczyk in Night Is a Room (photo: T. Charles Erickson)
In her banal Night Is a Room, Naomi Wallace explores how a seemingly strong relationship falls apart: Liana, a happily married woman with a college-age daughter, decides to bring together her husband Marcus and his birth mother Doré, who gave him up for adoption when she was 15. For Liana, the reunion is disastrous: she and Marcus soon divorce. Act II is another reunion of sorts, with the two women meeting after several years and discussing what happened in everyone’s lives since they last saw one another.

Without giving anything away about the relationship of Marcus and Doré which causes his marriage to dissolve, I must report that Wallace avoids dealing head-on with a monster of her own making. The crucial mother-son reunion scene, necessary to give this story any shred of psychological and emotional credibility, is never shown; instead we get after effects that are far less affecting.

Wallace does provide coarse, explicit sex talk and activity—at one point, Marcus fingers Liana to orgasm in a matter of seconds—and bodily fluids a la Hir, as Doré pees in her pants and Liana wipes herself dry post-orgasm, throwing the damp towel at her husband. Instead of exploring a serious (if taboo) subject, Wallace keeps her distance by putting into her characters’ mouths pseudo-poetic dialogue, which sounds particularly ridiculous coming from the working-class Doré.

Bill Heck (Marcus) and Ann Dowd (Doré) are persuasive, but elegant Dagmara Dominczyk is something else entirely: her Liana is riveting, even thrilling as she thrashes about in a personal tragedy of her own making. It’s too bad such compelling acting is at the service of another platitudinous Naomi Wallace play that borrows its title from someone else’s superior art; this time William Carlos Williams' poem Complaint gets the gilding by association treatment. It doesn't help.

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