stage dive

Stage Dive: A Weekly Roundup, This Time With Vampires and Hot Sex!

Michelle Pawk and Reed Birny in A Small Fire.

Welcome to Stage Dive’s first old-fashioned, Wild West theater roundup, a weekly feature from here on out. Technically speaking, this will mostly be a non-Broadway roundup, intended to feature not just Off Broadway offerings but shows from off Off Broadway, beyond Broadway, under Broadway — any little under-500-seat crevice where theater grows.

Like, say, the Hudson Hotel guest suite where Green Eyes, a brief, bonkers erotic grapple by Tennessee Williams, is currently in rut. Running only 35 minutes — one long scene, basically — this 1970 curio has echoes of Williams’s earlier work (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, most explicitly), but more in common with his later stuff, the sensually and poetically incontinent work of his spotty final decade. Director Travis Chamberlain aims to up the transgressive ante by placing his audience in an actual hotel room with the play’s two sparring, shtupping principals, unstable infantryman Claude (Adam Couperthwaite) and his fierce new bride (Erin Markey, best known for her burlesque solo musical Puppy Love: A Stripper’s Tail), as they kinkily consummate their dangerous union before Claude heads back to fresh horrors in Vietnam. Green Eyes is about sex and war and guilt and sex again, with a heavy mist of sadomasochism and rape fantasy overhanging the bed. Markey’s bruised, nude form becomes the terrain of the play, and her sashaying power-camp (perhaps the only legitimate choice for material this purple) leaves little room for anything else, including Claude, whom Williams and Chamberlain both seem intent on shrinking. We come breathtakingly close to sheer misogyny here, but these characters are such pop-eyed caricatures of Williams’s well-documented internal torments and obsessions, there’s barely anything literal, political, or even physical to fight over and lay hands on.

Is it hard to be in the same small room with this violent erotic drama? Sure. But personally, I think it should have been even harder. Several factors work to kill the outre mood, including the process of getting fourteen fully clothed audience members seated in two neat rows in an active hotel (business Chamberlain mistakenly carries out himself, with chipper, mystery-killing brio). The extensive sound and light design (surprisingly complex, given the physical limitations) makes the space feel more like a traditional theater than was probably intended. And we certainly shouldn’t need to hear from the director yet again (“Thank you very much for coming … ”) after the show’s apocalyptic, over-the-top climax. Hotel orgies should not have barkers.

Speaking of small apocalypses: Dracula has returned to Broadway, starring the young Italian musical-theater pinup Michael Altieri as His Dribbling Nibs, the Count, and a bored-looking George Hearn as phlegmatic vampire-hunter Abraham van Helsing. Drac haunts the public domain, which must make him irresistible to producers, especially in the midst of yet another vampire craze. But no one’s really made a case for him as a viable theater commodity since Frank Langella. This script is the same creaky twenties stage adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel (by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston) that powered Langella’s successful late-seventies run; one marvels at its longevity. Director Paul Alexander’s expensive and incompetent revival will certainly confine the Deane-Balderston version of the Count to his coffin for a few more decades. (Congrats to champion bullet-dodger Thora Birch for getting out of this production before it was too late.) The cast is uniformly wan and Altieri’s pan-Euroid accent and Days of Our Lives approach to line readings make him lavishly and hilariously unscary. There is one scant highlight: John Buffalo Mailer (Norman’s son), as the Count’s bug-eating minion Renfield, tears into a split-personality role with all the cackling, lip-smacking overacting of a man denied his true calling: understudying Hasselhoff in Jekyll and Hyde. For what seems like five glorious minutes, we watch him scuttle slowly (carefully, securely tethered) along a wall, pausing occasionally to hiss and hyena-laugh.

Nobody climbs the walls in Adam Bock’s latest, A Small Fire, a strenuous-yet-evanescent upper-middle-class family drama that slowly and belatedly transforms into a minor-yet-honest exploration of a deeply imperfect and fully functional lifelong marriage. Setting aside the sere, brutally lit age-of-terror paranoia of his recent “office plays” (The Receptionist and The Thugs), Bock looks to plumb more domestic anxieties: aging parents, harried, nest-abandoning children, less-than-heavenly unions tested late in the game. In this case, a hard-charging construction contractor, Emily (Tony winner Michelle Pawk), begins losing her senses, one by one, gradually becoming her own sarcophagus. Her happily submissive husband, John (Reed Birney), is uncomfortable with his new role as caretaker for his fiercely independent wife, but he’s counseled by their soon-to-be-married daughter Jenny to take this opportunity to define himself, maybe live a little. And John does live a little — just a little — as Emily redraws the savagely shrinking perimeter of her world. Yet as she drifts away from us, so does the play, as if its sensory array is shutting down, too. For a tense moment, the whole thing looks like a wash.

Bock doesn’t exactly pull a rabbit out of his hat at the end, but he does succeed in suggesting something lovely and subtle, hanging in the void: a modest, hopeful fantasy of how two mismatched people, united in and confined by an enduring yet suboptimal love, can still create something beautiful between them, a crucial illusion of safety and security. Pawk pushes a bit too hard early on, and Birney’s burnished beta-male shufflings we’ve seen before, but these two find moments of such grace and brutal beauty in their long asymmetric marriage, it’s hard to begrudge them the warm-ups and throat-clearing. In the end, their act of desperate, grasping passion rivals anything you’ll see in Green Eyes.

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Stage Dive: A Weekly Roundup, This Time With Vampires and Hot Sex!