Tag Archive: long wharf

  1. Talk of Our Town

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    “Wherever you come near the human race, there’s layers and layers of nonsense,” says the character of Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”

    These words resonate with many of our day-to-day frustrations. It is the role of theater, though, to cut through that nonsense. The best art takes the human mess of experiences, beliefs and commitments and finds in it something intelligible and beautiful.

    One leaves “Our Town” with a swelling sense of the preciousness of life: a feeling that is sentimental but also undeniable, like the play itself. Set in Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire, it is really about every town, and every human community. It follows two next-door-neighbor families, who could stand in for any family. The play’s strength is its universality.

    Long Wharf Theatre’s production, which opened last week, tries to pull the play into the 21st century. About half the cast are people of color, for one thing; this diversity seems to be the result of choosing the best actors around rather than a political statement.

    But there’s a fine line between universality and being generic, and other choices are less successful. The actors wear modern middle-class clothes — jeans, flannels, t-shirts — and in doing so take away the play’s specificity. In a work already in danger of feeling generic by attempting to represent everyone, the highly specific setting — small-town, turn-of-the-century New Hampshire — grounds “Our Town” and shouldn’t be forsaken so quickly.

    The two lead actors’ approach suffers from the same miscalculation as the costume design: in trying to be every couple, they fail to register as convincingly unique people. They are appealing and charismatic but feel too much like caricatures.

    What this production has in abundance is polish — from the sleek online ads that appeared on my computer last week (with a laudatory review by the New Haven Register, which also happens to be the show’s “Media Sponsor”), to the changeable backdrop and smooth lighting. The cast is strong, and the iconic role of Stage Manager, who acts as narrator and tour guide, is played with warmth and authority by Myra Lucretia Taylor.

    The venue is an expansive room with seating on three sides of the stage. “Our Town” kicks off Long Wharf’s 50th season, and most of Wednesday’s audience came straight from a party marking the occasion, held for season-ticket holders. Illustrious guests included former New Haven mayor John DeStefano Jr. and a nephew of Thornton Wilder himself. The audience’s ritzy evening wear made for a peculiar contrast with the working-class life celebrated in the play, but the intermission schmoozing revealed that these people made up their own kind of community. The woman I was seated next to told me many of the audience members had sent their kids to the same schools.

    When originally staged, the play’s unconventional form was too progressive for many. Its risks still feel bold and fresh: the thoroughly broken fourth wall, the actors planted in the audience, the surreal cemetery scene, its division into acts called “Daily Life,” “Love and Marriage” and “Death and Dying.”

    Yet “Our Town” is avant-garde without being cold. The third act builds to an intense emotional pitch and eventually had my whole row in tears. How many shows can you say are imaginative, warm, beautiful, heartbreaking? Those are adjectives I am reluctant to throw around, but “Our Town” demands that you give in to its all-embracing humanity, brought alive and writ large in this big-hearted production.

  2. The Sincere, Artificial Apology

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    “Sorry, sorry, sorry.” As an adolescent, I recited this incantation on multiple occasions: When my brother dropped his ice cream cone, when my peer failed a test, when my third grade teacher tripped and fell on the ice and, of course, when my best friend suffered through her first heartbreak. My father always used to get angry with me for apologizing for problems that just weren’t my fault. But how else are you supposed to respond to something so out of your control and still convey a sense of sympathy?

    After Wednesday night’s performance of “The Consultant,” a new play written by Heidi Schreck, at the Long Wharf Theater, I rethought the motivation behind my countless “I’m sorry”s. Deep underneath every fallen ice cream cone or crestfallen friend, I have felt a small piece of blame. Put more eloquently a by the young consultant, Amelia (Clare Barron), “We are all responsible in some way for everyone else’s suffering.”

    And there is certainly enough suffering to go around in The Consultant. Taking place after the 2008 financial crisis, the show focuses on workers in a troubled pharmaceutical company. Their job security is always uncertain, but they also have to struggle with the all-too-normal issues of romance, ambition, altruism and family. Enter Amelia, a quirky grad student from NYU who wants to help immigrants learn English and change the world along the way — despite her immense student loans. By mistake, she is hired by the company to teach Jun Suk (Nelson Lee), a designer at the firm, better presentation skills and not to improve his English. And so, through a series of comedic coincidences, Amelia ends up trying to save Jun Suk’s job. Meanwhile, receptionist Tania (Cassie Beck) and ostentatious businessman Mark (Darren Goldstein) become caught in a romantic entanglement.

    Not everyone was along for the ride. As I left the theatre, I heard one audience member say “there was something strange about the tone of the play. It was somehow artificial between the characters.” This idea struck me. She was absolutely right. From its opening flood of stage lights to its final spoken words, all of “The Consultant” implied that nothing on the stage was real or permanent. The entire set shouted “plastic,” and you could see the material everywhere, from fake glass windows to an imitation IKEA desk. The entire company, it seemed, could pick up one day and leave. The characters verged on stereotypes: the naïve, eager graduate who wants to change the world, the quickly aging receptionist who got stuck in a sub-par job, the childish, masculine businessman who sometimes objectifies women and the overworked divorcee who can’t find happiness. They revolve around each other without forming any real relationships. Together they suffer, together they laugh, and together they try to create a makeshift family, but only because the economy has stuck them together.

    This artifice leaves the audience stunned, and yet, this artifice is also what makes the production theatrical gold. We have all found ourselves in relationships that rely solely on the fact that we and someone else inhabit the same environment. Work relationships, study groups, book clubs -— no one is immune, old or young. We’re all afraid of getting too close, and because of that we keep our distance. The characters in “The Consultant” may seem stereotypical, but that’s only because they play into assigned roles. In these sorts of relationships, after all, simple personas are all we have. Only when they are alone do we understand the play’s characters as more than they appear.

    “The Consultant” also understands how these ordinary interactions can build into beautiful, dysfunctional, tragic families. Throughout the play, characters take on childlike or parental roles in relation to everyone else. Tania cleans up after Jun Suk after too much revelry, though she reminds him “I’m not your mother.” The office workers learn to rely on each other even while resisting true affection.

    But the family is always under threat. The big, bad Boss Harold (never seen by the audience) looms over the office, firing victims one by one. The threat of his presence puts the office on edge. Whenever a phone rings (and this happens often), the characters’ emotions are pushed even further. This constant ringing and buzzing provides comedy, but it also reminds us how fragile these relationships are. At the end of the show, we are left questioning: Can work relationships survive without the office? How can you say sorry to someone classified as the work friend? You make this dysfunctional family, and wait anxiously to see how much weight it can hold.  Maybe you have to justify your actions with an “I’m sorry” and take responsibility. Maybe you have to accept that some relationships are meant to simply end.

  3. At Long Wharf, a funny but disjointed show

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    Satires were meant to be written with knives.

    Is it surprising, then — or troublingly unsurprising — that the device of a knife (long, stainless steel, serrated edge) acts as the central support of “January Joiner,” the self-styled “weight loss horror comedy” now playing at the Long Wharf Theatre?

    “We’re going to help you wield a knife,” snarls a Barbie-doll fitness trainer to her cadet class of oversize trainees. Her words of wisdom: Visualize yourselves, you fatties. Now, carve away the fat.

    As advice for satirists, that ain’t bad. Wield a knife; the humor should be stinging, sharp. Avoid excess. Cut deep. Aim for the jugular.

    So the play’s knife metaphor would be cheekily self-regarding if it actually contributed to the satire. But, at most, I’m left with a paper cut.

    Set at a fitness resort on the Florida beachfront, “January Joiner” brings together a small cast of heavyset characters eager to slim down. Shaken by a heart attack — “an event,” as she pooh-poohs it — Terry vows to die another day and lose 50 pounds. Decked out in sun hat and bumbling over enthusiasm, Terry is defined by a Heartland naiveté and a simple, wholesome desire to lose weight. It’s the right thing to do. Myrtle, her slightly thinner and classier sister, tags along to the resort, ostensibly to support Terry. But when no one’s looking, Myrtle tightens the belt on her spa robe. No doubt her body image is victim to the expectations of professional life in waistline-obsessed New York.

    The fitness formula? Nibble, avoid meat. Or, for the upstart high priests of the body cult, assume the shape of meatheads.

    The play’s narrative formula, on the other hand, cleaves to “Trading Places”: expectations are upset, personalities inverted and crisscrossed. In a tour-de-force monologue delivered as poetry —  but tightly, without artifice — Terry (played by the talented Ashlie Atkinson) comes back from a swim in the ocean, stung by a passerby’s barb about “whale-watching.”

    So she vows to lose 100 pounds, not 50. And just like that, sneaking in through the back door of a strong monologue, Terry gives in to insecurity. Along with her elephant skin, she sheds her coherent personality as cultivated by dialogue to that point. What happened to the Terry who revels in fat jokes? The one who enjoyed comments like “Your mom is so fat she looks at the scale and it says, ‘To be continued …’”

    But personalities in this play aren’t “to be continued.”

    They jerk; they swerve. Terry becomes a fitness nut, losing so much weight that a new actress has to replace Atkinson in the second act of the play. But the new Terry, dubbed Not-Terry in the playbill, diverges so much from the old’s character that she’s borderline unrecognizable; actress Maria-Christina Oliveras ’01 is so made up, her face so hard and unforgiving, that we have to side with a suddenly hysterical — jealous? — Myrtle in accusing her of not being Terry. But what’s interesting in a stage drama if we’ve already settled it?

    That encapsulates the logic of “January Joiner”: locally punchy, at home in the tumbling consciousness of dialogue, but unconvincing on a larger scale. Playwright Laura Jacqmin’s’04 Russian dolls are not built to size. Sure, Terry wants to wear bras in the first four letters of the alphabet. That’s funny. But why is that what she wants?

    Verbal slapstick orders the screenplay. Darnell, the third trainee at the fitness resort, offers yet another caricature of heartland America. A big baby, he pines for his turtle and crushes on Terry, albeit to little avail. “Sometimes I say things and I can’t stop saying them,” he mumbles at one point, in a crystallization of his comic role. As an unrepentant veteran of the weight-loss program, he comes to Florida to chew the proverbial fat: The fitness center is his social center (though, from the looks of it, he chews more than enough animal fat, too.)

    The paragon of defiant consistency — a keen foil to the fitness trainers’ insistence on performance and self-betterment — Darnell starkly strays from his role at the climax, as if to conveniently shake up the drama.

    It’s a plot twist that’s unpredictable. And yet a narrative technique that is anything but.

    To Jacqmin’s credit, tools multiply in her toolbox; her craft is studied, if a bit too eager. An animated vending machine plays totem and confession box to the hungering dieters, but its moments of psychological manipulation punctuate the narrative without complementing it. Along with the occasional mute zombie that creeps up on the characters to elicit a brief, unresolved scream, the vending machine inspires horror and little else.

    Our imagined selves, our body image fantasies, can certainly be scary. But if the body image issue is to command our moral attention, why does the play demonize the fitness trainer who suffers from her own insecurities? Shouldn’t the last scene see her released from a cage, rather than punitively trapped in the vending machine?

    Un-transcended, the driving fable of “January Joiner” ushers into enlightenment some apostates of fitness, that great American religion. At the same time, it tracks initiated meatheads replacing their emotional intelligence with dead beef.

    And yet — forgive the metaphor — “January Joiner” feels much like the experience of slicing away at the rotisserie meat — gyro, shawarma, what have you — only to throw all the Grade-A away. What a waste! “There are starving artists in Brooklyn,” my mother always chided me at the dinner table.

    Never play with knives, she also said.

    As social commentary, “January Joiner” succeeds only in playing with knives. Sorry, but we came to eat some meat. Isn’t the point of a play, of any art, to taste its argumentation? (So chewy, so juicy!)

    We’re on a diet.