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stage dive

Theater Reviews: Born Bad Draws Blood! Plus: A Witty Wittenberg, and a Deadly Night With Wallace Shawn

Heather Alicia Simms, Michael Rogers, Crystal A. Dickinson, and Quincy Tyler Bernstine in Born Bad.

Born Bad (at Soho Rep’s Walkerspace through April 24)
A barreling dramatic poem in six-part dissonance, Debbie Tucker Green’s Born Bad is a deeply unsettling, upsettingly funny family portrait, slashed with box cutters and stuck back together with guilt, hurt, and blood. The members of a nameless clan of West Indian descent — Mum (the TV regular Elain Graham), Dad (Michael Rogers), Dawta (a durable Heather Alicia Simms), Brother (LeRoy James McClain), Sister 1 (Ruined’s Quincy Tyler Bernstine, an actress who could bring subtext to reciting a dinner menu), and Sister 2 (Clybourne Park’s Crystal A. Dickinson) — lob bitter recriminations and bitterer memories at one another, as the mystery of the family’s dysfunction slowly ravels out. (The root of the trouble is ominously silent, ever-present Dad, and what he did or didn’t do to Dawta, and how much Mum knew — how much Mum, in fact, facilitated.) For a play that is, in essence, a long and punishing argument, with the leverage sloshing from one character to the next, Born Bad is a remarkably smooth 60-minute ride. Occasionally, I wondered if its musical language, to unaccustomed ears, might prove too aurally delightful for the weighty subject matter. (“I ent gonna lie — not remembering the nitty grit, not the all you wanna know, not the whole nine, not your version, not all a that, I don’t. But I remember bits.”) But director Leah Gardiner deploys nothing but her actors, a few chairs, and the dying sunset light (which angles accusingly through a slotted ceiling) to quickly build, in a series of short scenes, webs of alliance, jealousy, and betrayal that suggest a tragedy of almost Grecian size without once having to declare it.

Wittenberg (Pearl Theatre Company, at City Center, through April 17)
Every high-school senior should be trucked in to see Wittenberg, the Pearl Theatre Company’s adorable, playfully anachronistic and unerringly affectionate academic satire, a sort of quadrangular Shakespeare in Love: It’s a philosophy survey course and a non-smirking smartypants comedy all in one. (Plus: lute solos!) At playwright David Davalos’s anything-goes version of the University of Wittenberg, real-life sixteenth-century faculty like Martin Luther (Chris Mixon, the Pearl’s expert pantaloon) mingle with their fictional affiliates Prince Hamlet of Denmark (the always masterly Sean McNall) and Dr. John Faustus (Scott Greer, a Philadelphia import of Chaucerian dimensions and marvelous appeal, whom I’d like to see on this side of Jersey more often). Faustus is a fierce humanist with a hint of Timothy Leary in him, prescribing “kaffe” and free thought to his constipated friend and academic rival Luther. (How else does a monk unclench long enough to discharge 95 antinomian theses?) Meanwhile, Faustus furnishes Hamlet (who, naturally, can’t bring himself to declare a major) with the Renaissance equivalent of THC and tries to get to the bottom of his bad dreams. It’s all little more than an allusive goof (nearly every famous Hamletism is anticipated, to collective chuckles from the audience), but Davalos gives Faustus and his cohorts just enough emotional webbing to hold the play together on its own merits. By the time Dr. John utters his most famous quote (“Que sera sera”) in the form of the even-more-famous Doris Day song — while accompanying himself on acoustic lute at the local student tavern — we are well and thoroughly conjured.

Marie and Bruce (at Theater Row’s Acorn Theater through May 7)
Wallace Shawn’s 1979 black comedy Marie and Bruce isn’t designed to be likable, so anyone who wishes to dislike it (and I disliked it, intensely) must bring his hate to the table for agonizing analysis — just as the title couple does. “I mean, I had thought we would have a nice evening together,” babbles Bruce (Frank Whaley), an urbanely banal nonentity so blissfully out of touch with his own life that he almost seems free from pain. (Whaley wields vacuity like a bludgeon. Is he secretly wounded? Or as invulnerable as his emptiness suggests? Whaley, to his credit, never lets you make up your mind.) “I know you’re unhappy,” he tells his hellaciously miserable wife Marie (a game if ultimately exhausted Marisa Tomei). “But we could discuss your unhappiness and still have a very nice evening together.” That night turns out to be an impossibility, both inside the world of the play and out in the audience. Director Scott Elliott finds the rhythm of Shawn’s brute poetry, as Marie, spitting venom and scat imagery (“You’re only a person? Well, pardon my mistake — I just thought you were a shit, you filthy cock-sucking turd”), attempts to articulate her loathing for someone who’s barely there. But that rhythm quickly becomes a form of water torture, and Elliott never finds deeper chords and colors. Within minutes, we’ve finished appreciating Shawn’s ear for urban intellectual discomfort, our brains fill with corrective white noise, and an unpleasant (and dramatically inert) night is had by all. “Our evening is spoiled, and my life was spoiled, because I met you,” says Marie. “I wish I hadn’t. I wish I hadn’t.” There you go.


Macbeth (at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through April 17)
Another week, another Macbeth: How many can even the current apocalyptic zeitgeist support? (Next week: Sleep No More!) This one comes to us from Merry Auld and the Cheek By Jowl company. All in black, on a nearly bare stage — their shadows towering malevolently on the naked back wall — the troupe builds a flitting forest of treacherous motion, partitioned and controlled only by thin filaments of light. (The one splash of mismatched color comes in the comic Porter scene, which is played at a high, poppy pitch, but amid all this crepuscular mood-play, the broad gag feels a little desperate.) Our Macbeth (Will Keen), a nervy, jerky little man, often seems to be fighting a stutter: Both his ungoverned ambition and his reliance on his wife (a mercurial Anastasia Hille, matching her leading man jerk for jerk) seem to be framed in terms of his social deficiencies and visceral insecurities: Keen’s Macbeth feels genuinely disoriented much of the time. (He’d really like to know where that dagger is, if only to regain his equilibrium.) It’s all quite involving at first, but around the two-hour mark, with nearly 30 minutes to go, director Declan Donnellan’s pools of darkness and coiled silence start to seep a little, dampening the pounding energy of the play’s final act. (Be warned: Cheek By Jowl has taken literally Macduff’s exhortation to “cut short all intermission.” In fact, there isn’t one.) Keen enjoys letting his dramatic pauses well up like steam explosions — but sometimes they simply go flat. By the end, he felt like he was approaching the character on a phonetic level. And while such a devolution may have some lit-crit merit, as entertainment it’s a nonstarter — especially at hour three. Maybe just a tad less shadow, a smidge more substance might’ve done the trick?

Photo: Carol Rosegg