Here’s the story of my past few days at the theater: They started out well-intentioned and bland, got wilder and worse, then ended with something powerful, lucid, and profound. Like some sort of corporate retreat that got unhinged and emotionally sloppy at night in the hotel bar, from which you ultimately wandered away out into the dark freshness of the wee hours, to watch the long slow sunrise in silence. Or just, three plays.
At Manhattan Theater Club, Lynne Meadow is striving for ripped-from-the-headlines relevancy and that highly suspect sweet spot between “challenging” and “accessible” as she directs Bekah Brunstetter’s soft, buttery dramedy The Cake. Debra Jo Rupp (of That ’70s Show and This Is Us, for which Brunsetter writes and produces) plays a sweet-tempered North Carolinian baker named Della. She’s maternal and charming and a wizard with buttercream, and she’s all set to appear as a contestant on The Great American Baking Show. What could possibly make us not love her? Could it be that she’s about to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple? Yes, ma’am, it could. Brunstetter’s twist on the news is that Della knows and loves the person she’s failing: Jen (Genevieve Angelson) long ago left her home in Winston-Salem for NYC, but Della remembers her fondly (she was the young woman’s ultra-Christian — and now dead — mother’s best friend), and she’s thrilled to see her back in town. Thrilled, that is, until she realizes that Macy (Marinda Anderson) — the gluten-and-sugar-free, woke-AF, walking-Brooklyn-stereotype journalist for HuffPost and Jezebel who’s somehow ended up in her bakery, casting a judgmental eye over her cakes — is Jen’s fiancé.
It’s not that the actors aren’t doing serviceable work, and it’s not that Brunstetter can’t find her way easily around bubbly repartee or the occasional big, gushy, truth-telling monologue (just wait for Della to confess to her hidebound husband Tim, played by Dan Daily, that she likes The Birdcage and was semi-in-love with her college roommate, a gorgeous dancer named Sarah). It’s that I simply don’t understand the power or the appeal of plays like The Cake. Their hearts might be in the right place, but they’re as flat, as easily digestible, and as forgettable as soda crackers. They seem to want to change minds, but they feel more like sermons for the choir. And they’re so cozy and unimaginative in form, so predictable and watered down in politics — and such obvious, uninspired pieces of programming for theaters looking to Do The Right Thing without being extreme — that they’re less likely to penetrate us than they are to evaporate from our brains before we’ve made it back out onto the street. The standard response to The Cake and its ilk, the dreaded chorus you just might hear as you’re leaving the theater, is a lukewarm, “Mmm. It really makes you think.” Thoughts are apt to be gone by dinnertime.
Badness isn’t the sole province of formulaic realism though. As Peter Brook puts it, “Deadliness is deceptive and can appear anywhere.” I was looking forward to Suicide Forest at the Bushwick Starr. Billed as “a bilingual nightmare play excavating the Japanese-American consciousness and its looming relationship with sex, suicide, and identity,” Kristine Haruna Lee’s intimate, sinister exploration of cultural heritage and cultural shame seemed full of fascination and promise. But the show — in which Lee also appears under Aya Ogawa’s direction as a teenage girl named Azusa — is a rudderless, self-congratulatory mess. It’s the kind of deadly serious, aggressively insular experimental theater that looks you in the eye and dares you to find fault — if you do, it suggests, you’re at best a square and at worst, some kind of myopic sociopolitical villain.
Well, I don’t buy it. Suicide Forest attempts to keep its hooks in you not through dramaturgical rigor — and certainly not through anything as lamestream as linear narrative or compelling character — but through a series of half-baked shocks and overwrought confessions. We watch as a tortured, lonely salaryman (Eddy Toru Ohno) masturbates furiously next to Lee’s smiling, inert body as if she’s a sex doll. We see the same poor schlub ruthlessly humiliated on a grinning, malevolent game show — a sequence that succeeds in playing out the very brand of nauseating mortification it’s trying to point a finger at — and we watch as several cast members dressed in furry suits with horns made of branches (okay, these creatures are actually pretty cute) wander around in the dark, shining lights in our eyes. Then all the lights come up and Lee gets real with us. She talks about her real pain, introduces her real mother (Aoi Lee, a butoh dancer who, playing a red-robed death spirit, is quietly the most moving part of the show), and asks for real-time hugs from her castmates, who gamely try to stick with her through this heavy diaristic earnestness but who seem stranded and uncomfortable.
I found myself thinking of the experimental theater company I was a part of in college. I loved it with all my heart: It felt intimate and liberating and truthful and full of possibility. And our work ran the gamut from excellent to severely underbaked. A favorite company anecdote took place during a site-specific, processional show that had happened before my time. The group invited a beloved professor, who came, sat, watched, and then stood up in a rage about half an hour in and announced in full voice, “THIS SHOW IS DIFFUSE!” before walking out.
That kind of thing hurts, and it’s also absolutely vital. You can be as truthful, as vulnerable, and as right-minded as they come, and it means nothing if the art is trapped gazing immovably inwards, as self-contained as an oyster. Maybe there’s a pearl in there, but it’s not being shared. The real tragedy of Suicide Forest is that it doesn’t really need its audience at all. As a piece of performance it feels reflexive rather than generously transactional — sanctimoniously impenetrable not, crucially, in its cultural context but in its artistry. Something is happening in front of us, supposedly for us, but nothing is actually happening with us. Lee gets plenty of warm hugs, but we’re left in a deep freeze miles away.
Eric Berryman speaks to us as himself, too, simply and intimately, at the beginning of The B-Side — and the difference in address is astonishing, like opening the windows in a stuffy room. With a light touch and a sincerity totally free of self-consciousness or ostentation, he tells us the rather miraculous story of his show: He was working at a Chinese tea house where he happened to meet Kate Valk, a founding member of the playful giants of downtown theater, the Wooster Group. “Get the fuck out of town, I just saw one of your shows for the first time!” Berryman recalls telling Valk. He had seen Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation, and right then and there, over tea, he pitched his own idea to Valk for a variation on the theme. The B-Side, which the extraordinary Berryman performs with the equally superb Jasper McGruder and Philip Moore — and which Valk directed for the Wooster Group in the eventual result of that tea with destiny — is subtitled “Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons”: A Record Album Interpretation, and it is a patient, expansive stunner — simple in concept and meticulous, confident, and painfully beautiful in execution.
“I found this album on Amazon, and I’ve had it in my personal collection for about four years now,” Berryman says as he holds up an old record, the one that gives his show part of its name. It’s an album of “work songs, blues, spirituals, and toasts,” recorded in 1964 by a folklorist named Bruce Jackson who was spending time on Texas’s then still segregated penal farms. “I’m gonna play this on my turntable, listen via in-ear receiver, and attempt to transmit this material to you live … by channeling the voices of [these] men,” says Berryman. Then, in one of The B-Side’s first of many graceful, staggeringly gentle punches to the gut, he reads the men’s names. “Joseph ‘Chinaman’ Johnson,” says Berryman, “Mack Maze. W.D. Alec Alexander. Virgil Asbury. George White. Marshall Phillips. Johnnie H. Robinson. Johnny Jackson.”
There’s no pathos in Berryman’s voice, no comment or implication, but the names hang in the air with such solidity that the room suddenly fills with a sense of the sacred. We are part of a service, a memorial, and a resurrection. It’s no coincidence that the names call to mind other horribly fresh lists — the grim litanies of black men murdered by police. Berryman, McGruder, and Moore don’t editorialize: They simply sing, but there’s nothing truly simple about their magnificent, unsentimental performances. What’s unspoken but terribly clear is that the men they’re summoning into the room were enslaved a century after slavery. Now, Berryman and his fellow performers are their are chroniclers, their siphons, and the room seems to become larger, the scope of the show more nuanced and spacious with each new song, each new voice. By the time they’ve reached the end of the B-side, the space fairly buzzes with currents and crosscurrents of meaning. Of history, inheritance, and pain — then humor, then grief, then calm, and then pain again. As Berryman sits quietly during the show’s final moments, watching a grainy old video of a row of prisoners at work, their hammers striking in rhythm as they sing, it feels as if the theater’s air itself might shock you. Perhaps static electricity is the presence of ghosts.
The Cake is at City Center Stage I.
Suicide Forest is at the Bushwick Starr through March 23.
The B-Side is at St. Ann’s Warehouse through March 31.