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stage dive

Theater Reviews: The Stage Dive Weekend Roundup

Jake Gyllenhaal (left) in If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet.

Detroit (at Playwrights Horizons through October 28)

To see David Schwimmer deployed properly is a beautifully awkward thing. To witness the fantastic Amy Ryan (The Wire, The Office) doing almost anything — this, too, is a gift. To experience the full, carnivorous menace of Darren Pettie is, again, a meal unto itself. But to get a snootful of all three, plus relative newcomer Sarah Sokolovic (The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World), one of the most lapel-grabbing, attention-must-be-paid young actresses to enter the scene in a while, well ... it’s almost too much for a single night at the theater. And did I mention the play is great?

It is. Outskirts-prowling Off–Off Broadway denizen Lisa D’Amour makes an assured lunge into the spotlight with Detroit, her diet-absurdist suburban-satire. What’s left to satirize about the suburbs? you ask, justifiably. What aspect of suburbulism hasn’t been deconstructed right down to its subatomic Ikea-quarks?

Well, that depends: Which suburbs are we burbling about, exactly? D’Amour and Detroit are interested in a very specific stratum of outer-ring life — the crumbling, recession-denuded planned communities of midcentury. D’Amour’s voice is as light and effortless as it is abrasive: Her technique is to kick up a windstorm, bit by bit, then add ground glass. And abundant, mordant laughter. Her structure here is simple: two barely middle-class couples, both hanging on by their fingernails. One pair is buttoned-up to the point of strangulation (Ryan and Schwimmer), the other (Sokolovic and Pettie) pulsating with perilous sensuality, and fresh out of rehab. Or so they say. What develops isn’t entirely surprising — I spoil nothing by revealing that the feral couple shakes the housebroken folks out of their stasis, at a cost — but D’Amour’s intentions (coded into her spare, deadpan language) run deeper than a garden-variety upending of bourgeois torpor. She’s got a ghoulish, anthropological interest in seeing two once-disparate species — the American gypsy and the middle-of-the-middle-of-the-roader — brought into dangerous proximity by the razing forces of recession. This is a comedy for the 47 percent, and the other 50 percent or so who could backslide into that 47 percent at a moment’s notice. Can they avoid the Off Broadway ticket price — probably among the highest ever paid for a D’Amour play? Well, perhaps that’s a subject for the next D’Amour production. Here’s to more of them, at competitive rates.


Sounding Beckett (at Classic Stage Company through September 23)

Beckett plays often deafen us with silence. Sounding Beckett, by contrast, is full of mitigating notes, whirling musical dandelion spores churning up the darkness. In this superbly directed if ever-so-slightly misconceived production, three very short plays from Beckett’s late “ghost period” have been paired with commissioned music performed (in the breaks, not underscoring the plays themselves, mercifully) by the Cygnus Ensemble, a masterly six-piece string-and-wind outfit. The three plays have been selected for their implicitly musical skeletal structures: Footfalls, with its pacing spinster (Holly Twyford), is basically a percussion piece. Ohio Impromptu (brought off marvelously here) is a broken rondo, featuring two identical men (Philip Goodwin, Ted van Griethuysen), one reading a story aloud — a story that may be a painful memory — the other rapping on the table to stop and restart the narration, trying to forestall what’s already past. And Catastrophe (often referred to, crudely, as Beckett’s most “political” play) is a kind of perverse fanfare, where a tyrannical director orders a shivering old man to be undressed on a pedestal.

These plays are famously sparse, but the pleasant, tesselating minimalism of the music (by Laura Schwendinger, John Halle, and many others) shows signs of sprawl. Each piece keys into some literal aspect of the play: the knocking, the footfalls. But beyond that and a slightly seventies art-jazz texture, consonant with the period when these scripts were written, there’s no meaningful conversation. Beckett was a master of vacuum; like a good postmodernist, he affirmed Nothingness but, at the same time, divided it into measurable units. He substituted discipline for meaning. Whereas these songs, with their highly convergent and same-sounding structures, flood the theater with a kind of indifferent ether. Compared to Beckett’s famous concision, they seem bloated beyond belief. It’s just not a fair fight.   

If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet (at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre through November 25)

Jake Gyllenhaal, it turns out, is a stage actor of innate instinct: Whether he’s delivering a laugh line, getting lost in playwright Nick Payne’s trademark ellipses, or tossing furniture into the Plexiglas sluice director Michael Longhurst has attached to the lip of the stage, Gyllenhaal displays the intuitive understanding of theater-space — its exact dimensions and tolerances — that eludes so many film actors. He’s in perfect communication with hundreds of people while maintaining perfect intimacy with his scene partners. Not bad for a newbie.   

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s been gifted the plum role in Payne’s celebrated debut piece, If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, which swept London critics off their feet a few years ago. Gyllenhaal is Terry, the ne’er-do-well younger brother of George (Brían F. O’Byrne), an academic and climate Cassandra. George, who’s spent his adulthood in a state of mild shock at the apocalyptic state of the environment and the human unwillingness to respond, has lost himself in a massive project: a book that will list the carbon footprint of practically every human action. Meanwhile, his marriage to Fiona (Michelle Gomez) is failing, and his overweight teenage daughter Anna (Annie Funke) is in a personal tailspin he’s all too happy to ignore. Enter Uncle Terry, lovelorn and self-involved and borderline sociopathic, a walking avatar of human catastrophe. He shakes up the family and the play — then vanishes, as a more conventional family drama takes over. The performances are all excellent, but the story can’t find a fulcrum. (It’s Anna, on paper, but onstage, her scripted sulks and evasions ultimately make her more symbol than character.)

Young Brits are far ahead of their American counterparts when it comes to effectively synthesizing the personal, the political, the ecological, and the social. (I eagerly await a Stateside production of Mike “Cock” Bartlett’s Earthquakes in London, which plays with a somewhat similar premise.) But If There Is is a young, tender, exploratory play, and ultimately, it takes refuge in the same paralyzed bourgeois mildness its characters are smothering under. The flood comes — quite literally, thanks to some impressive, if slightly cumbersome onstage waterworks — and we still end up swaddled in cozy, prime-time-drama what-can-you-do-but-love-each-other comfort. Sorry, I’m too terrified for that. I’d rather you just abandon me on an ice floe, like the dead Eskimo I am. Even as the waters rise onstage, we’re allowed to feel that we’re watching this from far above sea level. Thanks, but I’d like to be reminded I’m already below it.

Red-Handed Otter (at the Cherry Lane through October 6)

The best moments in Red-Handed Otter, a lovably shaggy but stubbornly static new play from Ethan Lipton (Luther, No Place to Go), are also the most oblique. (Hip obliquity and quirk being handy substitutes for dynamism when most of your principal characters are essentially incapable of growth and change.) My favorite comes at the halfway point, when Lipton’s eccentric crew of security guards throws a party to cheer up the most desperate of their number, Paul (Matthew Maher). Paul has recently lost his beloved cat of seventeen years, and Don (Bobby Moreno) has just given him another, a “replacement,” as a surprise. Complicating matters, Don has also recently stolen away Paul’s girlfriend Angela (Rebecca Henderson) — suffice it to say, the gift is not appreciated. Sweet dim bulb Estelle (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), heretofore a tertiary character, offers to take the unwanted cat, revealing, in the process, that she has never owned or cared for a pet. This appalls her co-workers, and suddenly, thrillingly, the whole scene, her boyfriend, Randy (Gibson Frazier), included, wheels on her like an Ibsen mob. “I didn’t know I was supposed to!” cries Estelle. “Supposed to?  Supposed to?!” roar her friends. “We weren’t a family who had animals!” she retorts. “What,” asks Paul, incredulously, “did you have?” “People!” Estelle screams. “We had people! The house was full, and everybody in it was a person!”

Lipton and director Mike Donahue are working with the tippy-top shelf of New York City actors here, and in moments like the one described above, Red-Handed Otter cuts through the chop of loneliness and seething eccentricity with wit and style and flashes of brilliant humanity. Lipton has a solid handle on rumpled everymen and a great ear for the sing-song surreality of workplace drear; he’s a musician and a composer, and this comedy is best understood as a sort of jazz suite. But like most of its characters, it quickly seeks out a rut and refuses to move, getting lost in its own endless slideshow of human cat pics. The characters with potential for growth quickly squirm out of Lipton’s crosshairs, and, morosely and a little disappointingly, we limp to the finish line with the same pair of inert insecurity guards we started with. To end more amused than moved isn’t a tragedy, exactly, but it means Red-Handed Otter isn’t quite the red-blooded comedy it could have been.

Photo: Joan Marcus