theater review

Stroller-Size Theater: Josh Azouz’s Buggy Baby

From Buggy Baby, at the Astoria Performing Arts Center. Photo: Emilio Madrid

The largest performances in New York right now are happening in its smallest theaters, where they can crowd you up against the wall and push at your sense of self-preservation. Actors in big uptown houses (Broadway or the Met, say) can’t create the same sense of theatrical claustrophobia, hard as they try; certain powers ricochet in tiny spaces that would dissipate in the open air. 

One of these minute spaces is a concrete box beneath the elevated tracks at 23rd Street in Long Island City, newly reopened under the auspices of the Astoria Performing Arts Center. Painted a lurid Pepto pink, crammed with various detritus (do not look behind your seat lest you freak out at the amount of stuff balancing on the wall above you), it’s the perfect spot for British playwright Josh Azouz’s horror-comedy Buggy Baby, which requires a certain air of dishabille. Azouz’s impoverished immigrant characters are squatting in an abandoned warehouse in London, so their physical and mental walls both need to ooze insulation.

Expat director Rory McGregor seems to have chosen Azouz’s play for its chaotic and nightmarish atmosphere, created by visions of bloody six-foot-tall rabbits that threaten the audience and the cast. Those psycho-bunnies are all in the mind of Jaden (Hadi Tabbal), whose dependence on a chewable stimulant is making him an unstable member of his desperate household. We see right away that Jaden has taken responsibility for college student Nur (Rana Roy) and her infant Aya (Erin Neufer, an adult in a baby’s skull-reshaping helmet), but the actual backstory of their dependence, love, and the intertwined terror of the British state takes a little while to unfold in front of us.

Actually, describing Buggy Baby as a horror-comedy, which is what both McGregor and Azouz call it, is a disservice. The hallucinatory “horror” touches lie like branches over the elephant pit below, which is the far more realistic terror of a woman trying to ignore a man’s increasing unreliability. Why does Jaden sometimes call Aya by his dead wife’s name? Why does the little girl have that mark on her neck? As for “comedy,” Neufer’s performance as the baby is so convincing it does keep the audience laughing — she’s great at concerned looks that melt into pride (that’s a full diaper) and effortful concentration over important stuff, like sucking on a water bottle’s straw. All Neufer’s jokes, though, are a trick to make us even more frightened for her. Soon none of us care about the rabbits, even when they slam doors and creep through the aisles. We all know where the real harms lay and who will suffer them.

There isn’t much time left to see Buggy Baby, but you should hustle to catch it. All three actors do excellent work — Roy has the quietest task, so you only realize that she’s striking deep notes relatively late, and Tabbal walks a fine line between being the show’s most awful element and its most tragic. Together, they make a sensitive, realistic portrait of a relationship based in old violence (Who fathered Nur’s baby? And who killed him?) that is too important to break apart even when it rots. Between their careful understatement, they make room for Neufer’s outsize clown work, her contortionist’s flair as she folds up into her stroller or her plastic bathtub. When I got out of the show, my memory of her Baby Aya only got larger until it blocked out my ability to enjoy other things. It’s been several days, and I can see her in front of me, cooing and vulnerable and holding up her arms for help.

I know the rest of the culture has already watched (or listened to or read) a dozen accounts of the Theranos clusterfuddle, but I was still happy to watch Mona Mansour’s Beginning Days of True Jubilation down at the trusty, tiny New Ohio Theater. Surely, if deposed, Mansour will deny any direct connection to Elizabeth Holmes and her box that didn’t do anything, but the episodic comedy’s setup — a charismatic woman in charge, go-go corporate speak, a lack of actual value — certainly seems like a portrait. Mansour exaggerates the situation toward absurdity, so her pablum-spouting CEO (Annie Fox) has an office hidden in a sentient (?) maze, but certain other details have been ripped pretty directly from the Theranos subpoenas. There may — and I say this with my attorney present — be other Silicon Valley parallels as well.

Set designer Brittany Vasta puts the audience on the ground looking up the empty wooden seating risers, which stack up to the lighting grid. When Fox appears to her acolyte employees, she stands on top of this ziggurat, and her followers dash up and down the massive, unmanageable stairs, frantic for her favor. In short scenes, they also dance (Britney’s “Work Bitch” gets them hopping) and jockey for advantage, reducing one another to tears for, say, failing to come up with a cool new name for the break room. The 14-person cast is packed with majestic, unflappable types (Rosa Gilmore, Jennifer Mogbock, Shayvawn Webster, Alex Templer) and gifted, panicky clowns (Brian Bock, Caroline Grogan, Alex Templer, again), so there’s plenty of comic fodder for their hierarchy games.

Days is half of a double bill by the Society, a collective that’s the brainchild of Mansour, director Scott Illingworth, and a cadre of actors who employ the Joint Stock method of exploratory workshops and writer-led creation to make shows. (The other production in rep is Emily Zemba’s The Strangers Came Today, which I haven’t yet seen.) The best-known product of the Joint Stock technique is Caryl Churchill’s 1979 play Cloud 9, and the process, as it has done since the ’70s, generates dense, richly imagined behavior full of physical invention and a text that fits itself exactly to the company’s gifts. (It’s like a parade of the special-skills sections from their résumés: foreign languages, mime, dance, the works.) Several of Illingworth’s staging choices, including a mass interview sequence in which the actors hold up cell-phone videos of their mouths, are striking, particularly those that turn the CEO’s company into a chorus.

Because of the foregone trajectory of the start-up’s inevitable fall, the play does become predictable, and making sure all 14 performers each get a moment in the spotlight has its own dilatory effect — one of the friction points of the Joint Stock method. There’s therefore a small drop-off in energy right at the crunch. But the main impression left by Days is of a group that believes in process rather than product. In Silicon Valley, that sort of means-justify-the-goal thinking would be a red flag, but when you find that headlong, process-oriented passion in a theatrical collective, it’s gold at the end of the rainbow. The magic of company formation is too rare these days because it requires the kind of energetic input and long-horizon rehearsal that many art-makers cannot afford. Yet here we find more than a dozen of the city’s finest actors, each ceding space to the other, each investing every part of themselves. They’re throwing good money (and their own good lives) after something ineffable, and that sort of blue-sky investment does sometimes pay wild and beautiful dividends.

Buggy Baby is at the Astoria Performing Arts Center through June 26.

Beginning Days of True Jubilation plays in rep with The Strangers Came Today at the New Ohio Theater through June 25.

Stroller-Size Theater: Josh Azouz’s Buggy Baby