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stage dive

Theater Review: Stop Hitting Yourself Tries to Make It in the Big City

"Stop Hitting Yourself". LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater at the Claire Tow Theater, Lincoln Center, January 2014. Credit Photo: Erin Baiano

LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater, perched like a diadem atop the Vivian Beaumont and Mitzi E. Newhouse, is probably the city’s most affordable small space for plays; its 112 seats sell for $20 each. Paradoxically, it’s also the most glamorous such room, with top-notch technical facilities, handsome lobby décor, and a terrific roof-deck view of Lincoln Center. For the current production of Stop Hitting Yourself, created by the Rude Mechs collective of Austin, it’s been glammed up even more than usual. As you enter the auditorium you are nearly blinded by the hilarious gilding of everything onstage: piano, chandeliers, liquor bottles, lawn chairs. It looks like a chunk of Trump Tower made a crash landing, water feature and all. 

And then you notice the nearly naked man collapsed as if dead on the floor amid the glitz. Oh, it’s going to be one of those plays, you may think: plays so hungry to punish social inequality, they bite the hands that feed them. 

Well, yes and no.

Stop Hitting Yourself does wear its class-consciousness on its sleeve, or would if it had a sleeve. Since 1995, Rude Mechs, named for the amateur workingman players of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has sought to untangle theatermaking from the commercial and careerist concerns that often overtake it, instead producing work within and for its surrounding community. If that’s your philosophy, god love you, but success will pose certain challenges; Stop Hitting Yourself, commissioned by LCT3, seems to be the record of the company’s wrangling with the need to scale up its locally sourced, craft-made process for New York consumption on a New York budget. Indeed, cultural disruption is both the subject and method of the script, which wastes no time establishing the tension that money introduces to any interaction: Wildman (as the wretch on the floor is called) gives $20 to an audience volunteer who helps him get up. You are meant to start asking: How much are good deeds worth? If you are paid well to do them, are they still good deeds? 

The plot, such as it is, further develops these questions in the form of a parable. In it, the queen of a realm of vast social inequality and conspicuous consumption is holding her annual charity contest; one of the entrants is Wildman, who has been kidnapped from his forest home by an unhappily married socialite who mistakes her self-interest for philanthropy. To prepare him for the rigors of the court, she must teach him how to talk, behave, dress, and think like an elite instead of a prole. Wildman might as well be wearing a sign that says “I represent Rude Mechs.” And the socialite might as well be named Claire Tow.

If this also sounds like the story of Pygmalion, that’s no accident, and it’s as much fun as “The Rain in Spain” to see Wildman spiffed up and denatured while mastering the ways of society: 

WILDMAN: How do you do?
SOCIALITE: That’s how it’s done.
WILDMAN: Quite well and you?
SOCIALITE: Look in your partner’s eyes.
WILDMAN: How do you do?
SOCIALITE: And if your partner isn’t looking at you—
WILDMAN: I’m glad you asked.
SOCIALITE: Look where I’m looking.
WILDMAN: I’m glad you asked. And you?
SOCIALITE: Excuse yourself.  
WILDMAN: Excuse me.
SOCIALITE: And introduce yourself to whoever they were looking at.
WILDMAN: How do you do? 
SOCIALITE: This way, you move partner by partner.
WILDMAN: Quite well thank you.
SOCIALITE: Up the social ladder.
WILDMAN: How do you do?
SOCIALITE: Always toward the more looked-at party.

But unlike Eliza Doolitle (or Galatea), Wildman has little depending on his success in passing; the plot doesn’t actually turn on his deportment any more than on the inevitable love he begins to feel for the socialite. (Even his charitable wish is only vaguely indicated; it has something to do with the environment.) In that way, Stop Hitting Yourself is barely a play at all, as the action is too often uncoupled from the theme. Rather, it’s a deliberately clanky contraption jury-rigged to offer a variety of commentaries on the problem of being responsible to oneself without being an asshole to the rest of the world. (Ayn Rand is meaningfully name-checked.) The structure is more like that of a Vegas revue or seventies Christmas special, alternating skits, songs, dance numbers, drag specialties, monologues, comic cameos, and entirely voluntary audience participation segments like the one called “Who Wants a Dollar?” The night I attended, a guy named Jeff from row E showed us his bellybutton, kissed one of the actors passionately, and eventually ended up starkers (and $8 richer).

Amusing though this revolving meta-theatricality is, it’s not amusing enough. If your goal is to have a theme wave brightly like a banner, the banner can’t be too heavy. The appealing cast of seven, under the direction of Shawn Sides, does as much to lighten the material as possible, but we can see the ironies arriving miles ahead. More surprisingly, the craft is too insubstantial to keep the banner aloft, especially given the high standards of LCT3’s technical production. Mimi Lien’s eyepopping set makes the script (credited to Kirk Lynn) look like it needs another run through rewrite. And the specialty bits — especially the songs and dances — are merely pleasant instead of terrific next to Emily Rebholz’s costumes. New Yorkers don’t mind a moral lesson or two, but a meh tap break makes no sense with Newsies a mile away.

It’s a telling irony that the play’s most moving moments are those in which the cast steps downstage, out of character, dropping the pretense of parable. Mostly ad libbing, they offer affirmations that are more like confessions about their own conflicts between caring for themselves and caring for the world. The night I saw it, one actor talked about eating locally sourced organic food at home but really enjoying McDonald’s at airports; another said, “I only have one black friend.”

There is moral rigor in such confessions, a rigor counterbalanced by kindness. You instantly excuse their transgressions, as you are probably meant to excuse their characters’. The play’s title certainly seems to suggest the idea that a certain amount of selfishness ought to be forgivable. True; but maybe Rude Mechs needed a more tough-love approach to the scripted material, because I’m not sure jaded New Yorkers will take their point. When I asked Jeff, the audience participant who got naked, what he’d do with his $8, he said he’d probably spend it on a beer. 

Stop Hitting Yourself is at the Claire Tow Theater through February 23.

Photo: Erin Baiano/© 2014 Erin Baiano