theater reviews

Just Talking, But Sometimes More: The Conversationalists and The Truth Has Changed

James & Jerome, in The Conversationalists, at the Bushwick Starr. Photo: Marcus Middleton

January is the season for many things — resolutions, Democratic debates, experimental theater festivals — but lately it’s also been the season for theatrical storytelling. By that I don’t mean simply narrative, but narration, the choice to tell rather than show. Right now, on Broadway, Laura Linney is performing a kind of live audiobook version of Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton; Off Broadway, Josh Fox was — until it was abruptly pulled from the Public’s Under the Radar festival and relocated to Brooklyn — delivering his one-man diatribe The Truth Has Changed; and Off-Off Broadway, the duo James & Jerome (James Harrison Monaco and Jerome Ellis) are presenting The Conversationalists, which is a music-infused version of a screenplay’s table-read, with Monaco reciting nearly all the action and camera angles. For the artists, there may be little connecting these productions besides expediency: Producers don’t necessarily need much money to show people nothing. But for the brains in the seats, there is something that links the experiences.

The narrating solo performer’s presence establishes a question in the watching mind — Is what she is saying true? — and then works productively with that question. There’s a reason so much monologue work is autobiographical (anything by Spalding Gray) or biographical (I Am My Own Wife, Mark Twain Tonight!) or documentary (anything by Anna Deavere Smith). Our critical function operates differently with the storyteller than with scene-player, because we immediately wonder about truthfulness. The monodramas that are pure fictions, like, say Harry Clarke or Clay McLeod Chapman’s extensive body of work, often specifically preoccupy themselves with our wavering trust in the speaker. The narrating performer demands the close involvement and even participation of her audience, and so our belief and ability to be persuaded (and betrayed) are her main tools.

Of these three efforts, The Conversationalists at the Bushwick Starr is by far the most interesting. (I get into the blandness that’s Lucy Barton elsewhere.) For ten years, Ellis and Monaco have been exploring the new/old oral tradition, with Monaco — the fastest talker in five boroughs — telling elaborate tales while Ellis — a jazz composer interested in both pop electronica and Brazilian samba — plays music. In this, their most complex and well-produced show to date (Annie Tippe directs), pianist and saxophonist Ellis also conducts a small trio, some of whom speak a few lines to give Monaco the occasional break. But what we’re watching is still essentially bardic.

“This is a movie that doesn’t exist,” he says. Eventually we’re told by a projected credits sequence that we the audience are credited with “imaginary art direction.” How much are we willing to picture a sprawling movie, one that zooms from a rooftop in Jordan to a chess club in Manhattan to a cliffside bungalow in California? As we either reject or answer Monaco’s call to conjure up each image, the play itself moves in and out of focus. We start in near-darkness, looking at a screen right in front of the audience. Monaco’s voice-over tells us that the first “shot” of the movie is a woman on a phone, leaving a voicemail in Arabic, and we see the translation appear as a supertitle. The descriptions continue, taking us into a Queens concert hall, where a sad-eyed man and a teenager listen to a glamorous woman singing. Slowly, the characters’ identities become clear; gradually, we’re allowed to see the people behind the screen. The simple set beyond it, by Diggle, is an empty reflection of our own full seating risers. The carpet that runs down our aisle runs through the screen and up theirs. Monaco is a narrow fellow on a mic; John Murchison is on upright bass; Ellis sits behind a piano; Michelle J. Rodriguez and Delaney Stockli perch on stools, sometimes playing violin, contributing a line or singing a solo.

The plot Monaco relates to us is a complex story about two friends, Esperanza, a well-known Mexican ranchera diva returning to her career after raising a son, and a down-on-his luck chess club owner Hassan, who has emigrated from the Middle East. They tell each other stories and eventually fall in love, as Monaco’s account fills up with flashbacks, leaps forward in time, overhead shots, and pans that move across each setting. The story, which starts superbly, is the victim of its own unwillingness to end. There’s a hint of the Arabian Nights here — a story that, almost anxiously, seems unwilling to end. Things get a bit soap operatic. Characters behave in wilder and more violent ways, time jumps get longer, and the events Monaco is describing get more hectic and less believable. But the plot’s only half the story. Ellis isn’t underscoring: Instead, the music and the words are the titular conversation. Ellis’s looping improvisational jazz talks to Monaco, and Monaco talks back in the form of the meticulously preprogrammed script.

Which is why it’s so startling when the rules change. Ellis breaks the frame by stepping over the edge of the movie screen frame to talk frankly with us. One of the wild twists has taken us to a prison, so Ellis speaks as himself, worrying about the man who inspired the character, and about fiction’s responsibility to the real black men behind bars. Ellis, though, has a stutter. He starts a sentence, and then stops for long seconds, suspended in the middle of a phrase. The room freezes. An hour of rapid superfluidity is turned suddenly electric by Ellis’s slowness. He talks, with effort and consideration, about his concerns as a black artist, as a man making things up despite knowing he’s committing a kind of treason to the real. In a long production, this is a short sequence, yet it has as much weight as the whole rest of the show.

Then, strangely, James & Jerome then let the piece continue on its previous path. It’s odd to be so brave halfway through a show, to break it, and then to return to regularly scheduled programming — and the evening begins to feel quite long. Yet several days later, the interruption is the bit I remember, particularly the physical sensation of the world changing its pace. Narration shows always make you think about truth, but this is the first time I’ve seen one that experienced it as a time signature. What a lot of fun all that symphonic storytelling was! But it was the slow movement that really taught us how to listen.

Josh Fox’s The Truth Has Changed brings a theater artist back into the form after years making documentaries (particularly the anti-fracking doc Gasland), though his methods are quite different now. Fox was known Off–Off Broadway in the 2000s for his International WOW Company, which produced low-budget epics with massive casts, sprawling, maximalist, didactic collages of scenes about (usually) war, which depended on Fox’s talent for visual fantasy. The BOMB: HyperReal America, The Expense of Spirit, and the Death of Nations quintet … these were barbaric-yawp-type projects. He was a maker in desperate search of an editor, someone who would cut and shape the material that apparently geysered out of him.

For his returning show, it appeared as though there might be a newfound simplicity. It would just be Fox, sitting at a desk, talking about what he’s learned from ten years making activist films about the environment. Like Spalding Gray, you know? Or Mike Daisey. In fact, Fox seems to have studied Daisey closely for The Truth Has Changed. He uses Daisey’s distinctive delivery, a sculpted cadence full of rapid, enjambed phrases, which are then suspended … before they burble on again. The copy is close enough to be mimicry.

Where Fox is un-Daisey-ish, though, is in his text. For two hours, scarcely taking a breath, he constantly gets in the way of his own analysis. He jumbles together things we already know (Cambridge Analytica, the BP oil spill) and things we don’t (his dreams, his regret at not saying something to a Good Morning America correspondent at Ground Zero, a compliment about his banjo playing) all with the same breathless urgency. He warns us that a “wave” is coming, but it’s unclear what part of the catalogue of horrors he’s talking about. Despite a constant attitude of explanation, he never clarifies anything. Did shadowy forces commanded by Steve Bannon actually pursue him after Gasland, or was it all paranoia? Does he understand how Google works? Is there ever a good reason to say, “Then I realized I was Antigone”?

Grandiosity isn’t in itself a dig against a theater piece. Fox clearly feels deeply about the state of the world, and he’s expending obvious effort to communicate that intensity. But his limitations as a storyteller — unlike the truth — haven’t changed. Indulgence still warps his narrative capacity; even discussing his own experiences, he gets derailed by self-aggrandizement and allusions that intensify without illuminating. (Odysseus shows up for a second, giving Antigone a run for her money.) Lines like “This [meaning online demographic targeting] has developed faster than the speed of morality” are crafted for sound rather than sense. Fox has been right in the middle of serious environmental fights. We’re eager to hear from the battlefront. But he’s miscast himself—he sees himself as Odysseus, as Antigone. What his tale needs, though, is a messenger.

Fox is also willing to bend reality to his narrative. A show that we’re told will run 90 minutes is actually an unbroken two hours plus an unannounced talkback. (This might seem minor, but it can have major repercussions in a tightly scheduled festival, in which every artist needs to share space.) Also, at the end of the performance I saw, a handful of people stood to applaud, but the majority did not. He then asked us all to stand, to raise a fist for freedom and resistance. Then he took a picture. I noticed that he recently Instagrammed an image of a unanimous “standing ovation” at the Public, in the fists-raised pose he asked for. The Truth … is malleable.

The Conversationalists is at the Bushwick Starr.
The Truth Has Changed has been pulled from the Under the Radar festival and will now be performed at the wow haus in Brooklyn.

Talk Talk: The Conversationalists and The Truth Has Changed