Sunday, October 22, 2006

Review of "Something You Did" at People's Light 10-22-06

Once in a great while, a new play comes along that is not only worth seeing, but immediately deserves consideration as our era’s contribution to the history of the theater. Willy Holtzman’s Something You Did, in world premiere at People’s Light and Theatre Co., is one of those plays.

Brilliantly set in a prison library (the very emblem of prison reform programs), Something plots the events leading up to the parole hearing of Alison Moulton, a 60’s radical implicated for her complicity in the bombing death of a New York City cop. Holtzman’s play closely mirrors the real events of Kathy Boudin, and includes analogs of two other prominent figures from the time, with the characters of Gene Biddle and Arthur Ross representing David Horowitz and Boudin’s lawyer, Leonard Weinglass respectively. The question, “What did you do in the sixties?” has real import here; as the play unfolds, multiple layers of treachery, hypocrisy, and culpability are revealed as the characters maneuver to either prevent or secure Moulton’s release.

For a script centered almost entirely upon politics and morality, the dialogue and action depicted are completely fluid, natural, and engaging. Even a staged reading of this play would captivate an audience; but under Abigail Adams’ sharp direction not a moment passes on that is unnecessary. Adams allows the plot’s manifold twists and revelations to unfold as naturally as the dialogue, handling a piece of political theatre with the deftness and precision of a well-crafted thriller.

The only distance between the audience and this play is in the portrayal of the characters. Amy Van Nostrand moves effortlessly throughout the wide range of emotions the role of Moulton demands, but while she hits all the notes expertly, she fails to present a coherent whole. As a woman consumed by her own fire in a world of pragmatists, Moulton is difficult to understand or identify with, and although we occasionally see her human side (longing to not die in prison), Nostrand’s performance fails to bridge this emotional chasm between her and the audience.

As Ross and Biddle, Jordan Charney and Tony Campisi, never fully engage their roles; instead they seem too invested in a nuanced replication of their real-life counterparts. Their attempts to inhabit these roles seem flat and forced, and both only come alive when the play demands that they drop cynicism or commitment, and show their humanity. At these moments, both men deliver spectacular performances, as the lawyer trying to free his partner’s daughter, and the former idealist trying to come to terms with the past he rejected.

The ensemble’s dynamics appear effortlessly, especially the supporting roles of Melanye Finister’s prison guard, and Cathy Simpson’s amazing and all-too-brief portrayal of Lenora Renshaw, daughter to the murdered policeman.

For the heady subject matter, Something is full of humor, witty banter (with “lawyer” used as a verb!), and language that is exact and uncompromising. The only omission: enough exposition to account for all the 60’s radical name-dropping. Never once does this play indulge in nostalgia, freeing Holtzman to unravel the consequences and culpability of the era. And while Holtzman condemns, he refuses to redeem Moulton’s criminal excess. But in portraying her refusal to compromise her beliefs to secure her freedom, Holtzman recovers the set of ideals and commitment to freedom where the 60’s began. In presenting the aftermath, he recaptures the hope, the idealism, and the very nature of the struggle itself. While showing those who have profited by turning their backs, he shows us how those same ideals can find redemption in the unrepentant who still do good by them.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Review of New City Stage Production of "Angel: A Nightmare in Two Acts"

What forces could transform a sensitive young farm girl into a vicious and sadistic killer before she is even twenty years old? This is the question posed by New City Stage Company’s premier of Angel: A Nightmare in Two Acts, a play that examines the brief life of Irma Grese, a notorious Nazi war criminal hanged by the British for her part in sending thousands to their deaths. Through many flashbacks, changes in plot, and multiple themes, playwright Jo Davidsmeyer attempts to analyze the woman known unaffectionately as “the beautiful beast,” in order to understand how such a life as hers was possible.

Unfortunately, this play asked far more questions than it answered, and both the cast and audience suffered from the defects present in the script. Angel failed to offer a single real conversation, but instead presented a staged history lesson, with reams of exposition clumsily inserted into the dialogue. This cluttered the performance of all the players, making it difficult for them to inhabit their roles while giving each of them the additional chore of somehow convincing the audience that all of these historical figures were so didactic. To add to this confusion, Davidsmeyer’s play shifted back and forth from Auschwitz, to Irma’s childhood, to the Nazi war trials, with such poor transitions that not even Neill Hartley’s usually brilliant direction could execute them faithfully. But the dialogue is where Angel suffered the most: beyond the pedantry of the exposition, the play filled the mouths of Nazi criminals and British attorneys alike with hackneyed and contrived phrases such as “You want the truth?” and “Who told you to think,” most of which only reminded of their far less clich├ęd usage in other works.

The script then confronted the actors with an uneasy dilemma. They could either take each bad line, muddled transition, and unintegrated trait of their characters, and play them with a capacity that befits their talents, thereby exacerbating the problems in the script; or they could give an uneven performance so as not to inflict these problems so drastically upon the audience. Unfortunately, the actors and director chose to solve the problem in the first, subjecting everyone to endure a night of (mostly) bad theater.

As Irma Grese, Ginger Dayle certainly looked the part, with her beautiful appearance and militaristic manner. She acted certain elements far better than others, but her performance was uneven—she easily handled the viciousness, but never mastered whatever human side of Grese that remained. Her attempts at seduction, at a warm relationship with her sister, her defiance at the trial, all seemed forced, but only partly because of the confused series of lines the script gives her. Moreover, her inconsistent German accent never once helped, and caused her to sound like a valley girl every time she uttered the German word “Ja!”

Though he intended to appear charming and carefree, Rob Hargraves’ accent and mannerisms made his portrayal of Josef Mengele into a smarmy, somewhat ridiculous parody. He gave a few brief glimpses into the character though, genuinely terrifying at times, especially when threatening Irma after she aborted his child. But mostly, Hargraves failed to capture this very complex role, playing Mengele as if he were a pervert, rather than a coolly detached and hideously manipulative killer.

As Helene Grese and Olga Lenygel, Irma’s sister and victim, Alix Fenhagen and Jackie Ruggeiro Jacobson gave the finer performances of the production. Although they inhabited minor parts, these two achieved depth and thoughtfulness within their roles, even through the contrived dialogue spoken by both. Fenhagen in particular took command of the stage during the early moments of Act Two, as she vainly struggled to accept her sister’s evil behavior in the face of the idyllic childhood they once shared.

In stark contrast to the delicate subtlety of their performances, Scott Evans’ Prosecutor didn’t speak a single one of his lines without raising his voice an octave in mock exasperation. Granted, his character tried throughout to understand how someone as young and beautiful as Grese could commit acts of such brutality; but his choices collided with the script, as Dayle’s Irma at one point implored him to break from the “stodgy British demeanor” that he failed to ever bring to the role.

In spite of these faults, for twenty minutes in Act Two, this production truly delivered. A rather strained transition roused the sleeping Prosecutor into the Nightmare of the title, where the play put him on trial for the Allies’ failures during the war. The entire cast then fully embraced their roles, all of which suddenly became invigorating and exciting to watch as the dialogue had them battle over who ultimately bears fault for the atrocities that occurred. The nightmare spared no one, and forced the West, the Jews, the Nazis, and the victors of the first war to confront their shared blame and the guilt that haunts them. The only mystery that remained is why Davidsmeyer didn’t construct the entire play in this fashion, as here Hartley could finally exercise his ability and catapult this cast through a thoroughly riveting episode.

After this dream sequence, Davidsmeyer could have ended her play, leaving many themes unresolved, while at least finishing on the dramatic height that she finally achieved. But unfortunately, she still had more to say, and Angel transitioned again, and then again, slowly becoming a play that refused to end. Thirty minutes later, Angel still left many themes unresolved, and while only succeeding in making this play a nightmare to watch.