stage dive

Theater Reviews: Life and Times, Bethany, and The Jammer

Women's Project Theater's Bethany by Laura Marks directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch; l to r Tobias Segal and America Ferrera.
Tobias Segal and America Ferrera in Bethany. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Life and Times (at the Public Theater through February 2)
Creative folks agonize endlessly about how to make the mundane poignant and thrilling. Do you simply let it be? Or dress it up? Make it dance? Or slather it in magical-realism sauce? The merry experimentalists at Nature Theater of Oklahoma have an answer in their astounding eleven-hour show-a-thon Life and Times:
Start with the words. All of them. Every like, um, and nervous ha! is preserved in their multi-chapter omnibus musical reconstruction of a vividly ordinary suburban life, derived from a combined sixteen hours of rangy, stammery, unrehearsed phone conversation with a company member (the thirtysomething performer and sound-designer Kristin Worrell). (The prompt: “Can you tell me your life story?”) Conceived by artistic directors Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska, Life and Times is equal parts mischievous found poetry and Matthew Barney maximalism — and, oh yeah, it’s also shit-loads of mesmeric fun. Especially if you’re in the target audience: nostalgia-prone thirtysomethings sliding wistfully and whinily into middle age. (Guilty as charged!)

The score, by Robert M. Johanson and Daniel Gower, is an off-kilter carousel of vaguely Beirut-y, Sufjan-ish soul-tugging folk-pop loops, aligning with motifs that emerge from the subconscious of the testifier, company member Kristin Worrall. Custody of the “story,” such as it is, passes from actor to actor; different styles and concepts take hold as we crawl — more or less chronologically, with infinite digressions — from early memories to adulthood. (In episode one, the whole thing’s a sort of half-time show; later, it morphs into a murder-mystery, etc, etc.)

The confessional aspect, you’ll be relieved to hear, is of little importance in and of itself: Worrall’s life, no offense, isn’t particularly unique, and there’s little to tempt the modern voyeur, already glutted on the buffets of social media and reality TV. As Worrall herself notes in several nervous asides, what she’s jaggedly dictating is nothing more than the white middle-to-upper-middle-class suburban experience, no curves thrown, no “This American Life” hooks proffered. (Ira Glass would recoil from Worrall’s stream-of-eventlessness like a sun-kissed vampire.) But that’s not to say the account lacks propulsion: On the contrary, you’ll watch on the edge of your seat, then drift into reverie, your own memories blending promiscuously with Worrall’s — then find yourself yanked back when the teller suddenly fixes on a moment that was, in that moment, the moment. (“And I just thought it was so beautiful” is one of Worrall’s natural refrains, applied variously to pets, people, hairstyles, fathers, mothers, and friends, and something transcendent happens onstage each time she repeats it.) Liska and Copper’s staging and movement, their deft art-direction of each moment, their sly good humor about the insanity of this theatrical errand, combine with their utter commitment to the beauty of each moment — the beauty Worrell herself is discovering, in real time, in the telling. And yet there’s no cheap “ennobling” of subject or format: This is, we never forget, just a “stupid phone call.” That happens to be the basis for one of the more ecstatically involving theatrical events I’ve seen in some time. Catch it this week before it’s gone. See one episode if you can’t see ’em all. (I only caught a portion. I hope to see more. Hell, the show isn’t even finished yet!) And lobby diligently for its return to a theater near you. It deserves Gatz-ian treatment from the theater establishment. And unlike Gatz, it needn’t be digested in marathon form. In fact, seeing it in series, à la Cremaster, might even be preferred.     

Bethany (at New York City Center Stage II through February 17)
America Ferrera (of Ugly Betty) turns out to be quite a chilling presence in Laura Marks’s Bethany, a brisk Hobbesian thriller set in recession-wracked 2009. Ferrera plays Crystal, a Saturn saleswoman putting the best possible paint job on her broke-ass desperation. She ends up rooming in an abandoned McMansion with an indigent paranoiac named Gary (Tobias Segal), and things trend Gothically from there. (If you know what happened to Saturn, you’ve already got a sense of where hope and change go to die in Marks’s stark other-America cosmos.) Bethany, make no mistake, is a morality play with sharp corners and no curves. Yet Ferrera, Segal, and a superb supporting cast (guided by the natural hand of director Gaye Taylor Upchurch) make Marks’s bold grotesques feel dangerously alive. Ferrera is technically wrong for her role: Somebody calls her “white-bread” at one point. But the play’s far, far more effective with an actress of color playing the striver. Crystal’s progress from hard-seller to near-grifter to pure survivor is smooth as vinyl siding, and Marks dances the razor’s edge of mere simplicity and schematization. But she pits Crystal against a great menagerie of Awfuls: an itinerant motivational speaker (a purring Ken Marks), a venomous floor supervisor (Emily Ackerman), and, of course, Gary. Segal gives great hipster-homeless-crazy.

The Jammer (at the Atlantic Stage 2 through February 17)
Rarely is such voluptuous talent spent in the service of nonsense: The Jammer, from voice-a-licious up-and-comer Rolin Jones (The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow), is a mock morality tale that supercollides emo Brooklyn sincerity, boho Brooklyn nostalgia, and yo-yoing Brooklyn irony into a singularity of cartoon silliness. We’re in a splash-panel version of fifties Bushwick, where sweet-pussed Jack Lovington (Patch Darragh) finds himself torn between an epically homely fiancée, the Catholic Church, and his passion for the roller derby, Satan’s own bloodsport. Jack’s a big ol’ naif (we know from his sensible sweaters and Marty vowels) who’s ripe for the plucking, and Jones sends him on a demented pilgrim’s progress along the Dantesque derby circuit, a demimonde so full of dipsomaniacs and regular-strength maniacs, the Church looks calm by comparison. His chief tribulation: semi-institutionalized, totally psychotic rink superstar Lindy Batello (played by ingenious imp and gifted physical comic Jeanine Serralles), who teaches Jack moves that bruise his tender heart — and his even tenderer penis. Director Jackson Gay enlists the help of a movement consultant (Monica Bill Barnes), as well as a “violence consultant” (J. David Brimmer), to create clever low-tech action sequences that occasionally draw a little too much attention to themselves compared to what they’re actually delivering. But then, that could be said of the play itself. Jones clearly has style to spare, as a writer, and this Crayola goof of a show — a feel-good, feel-nothing comedy — seems to be the attic he’s stored it in.

Theater Reviews: Life and Times and Bethany