Writing and starring in a more than vaguely self-referential one-man show is a great risk. In addition to the threat of overexposing oneself, there must be the nagging wonder if people are really interested in hearing what you have to say for “just a smidgen shorter than two hours.”
In his “Portrait of an Artist on a One-Night Stand,” Saul Nadata ’01 realizes an ambitious project with some great successes. His show is poignant in all the right places: the audience laughs and cries, watches and participates, shouts at him and is shouted at by him. But in the end, Nadata asks for too much patience from his audience as he strings together enough themes to fill a particularly existential season of Seventh Heaven.
In advance of any criticism, it is important to note that Nadata is an excellent playwright. He writes great dialogue — almost essential to a show with one actor — and so he goes back and forth, acting out scenes and playing several characters.
In this respect, his original star did the audience a great service by dropping out of the show at the last minute forcing Nadata to act in it himself. So, he delivers every line as it was meant to be said, and these dialogues, particularly the ones involving arguments with his girlfriend, Allison, are performed masterfully.
Perhaps the only possible critique of the actual delivery of the show is that Nadata clearly has no idea what to do with his hands. It is as if someone transplanted the head of a more than competent actor, complete with perfect facial expressions and sound delivery, onto a particularly awkward, minimally gesturing torso.
Despite the simple set and acting, Nadata has created a plot to be reckoned with.
“Portrait of an Artist” is about John Winslow, a cancer patient who spends the evening pondering the possibility of original thought as he tries to come up with his last words. The script is peppered with quotes from Shakespeare and pilfered “gates of heaven” jokes, and the audience learns that almost nothing in Winslow’s life is his own.
It seems as if Nadata read a lot of Tom Stoppard before writing this show because it is basically a case-study of minimalism, using everything from forced audience participation to stomping on pretzels to destructive theater in order to compensate for the lack of set and other actors.
Perhaps the only true fault of this show is that it falls victim to its idealism. Nadata seems to have tried to squeeze every deep thought, every painful revelation he has had into this, his manifesto, and in doing so he asks too much of his audience. There are too many threads, too many pithy statements about love, beauty, philanthropy and fear, and so the show is too long. It is partially salvaged by the shouting, throwing, stomping and plagiarism, but by the last half hour, the audience is eagerly awaiting Winslow’s last words.
Were he to have cut portions, the first to go should be the first scene after the intermission, during which Nadata sings along to a tape of the Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones” for the entire duration of the song. He perhaps could have dropped the bits about falling in love, too, which dominate parts that should focus on the idea of originality. But in doing so, he would have had to lose significant portions of audience participation, which though they are only loosely tied to the actual plot, help to keep viewers attentive.
At the climax of the performance, Nadata has the audience shout “Get over yourself!” to him. Rather than having two theater critics yell that during a preview of the show, it would have been more appropriate to request a chorus of “Learn to be selective with your anecdotes!”
The backdrop, created by Naomi Nadata, is painted like heaven. Along with impressively complex lighting, designed by Olivia Billett ’02, it added some much needed color to the otherwise plain set. While the sky and pearly gates fit nicely with the show, the music seemed to be chosen at random and was further obscured by unpolished cues.
Nadata has a lot of good things to say, and he says them effectively. At one good particularly clever point, he says, “cancer is indigenous to the artist,” implying the need for constant creation. If that be the case, “Portrait of an Artist on a One-Night Stand” is a colorful, bright and insightful performance that just needs a few treatments of chemotherapy.
Portrait of an Artist on a One-Night Stand
Saturday and Sunday at 9 p.m.