Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Other Place and the blessing of theatrical synergy

Two-show days/three-show weekends can be utterly exhausting. They're trying physically because I get fidgety and my knees start to protest after so much sitting still in a cramped space, mentally because it requires so much attention, and sometimes emotionally. That makes it hard to give each show the reflection it deserves. (I have become so grateful for the ninety-minute shows, which let me actually think between performances!) But I live outside New York, so there's just no way to see even half of the productions I want to unless I just cram them all in on the weekends. (A huge thank you to Chris, Seth, and Becca for letting me crash at their place--all the time.)

The flip side of this is that seeing shows back-to-back can create wonderful serendipitous experiences. Most recently, I saw Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney at the Irish Rep on a Saturday and Sharr White's The Other Place at the MCC the following day. Both are impressive performances in their own right, but the combined experience is far greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, if I had seen them months apart, I'm not sure my puny, forgetful brain would have made a connection. The plays tell the stories of women dealing with their own physical deterioration and its mental effects, how their husbands struggle to help them, and whether that help is more or less useful than how they struggle to help themselves.

Molly Sweeney has closed, but The Other Place is currently running through May 1 at the MCC and, although the script is flawed and devolves a bit into cliche, Laurie Metcalf's performance is mesmerizing throughout, even when she's just sitting on stage in character waiting for the show to begin. I don't want to give away her ailment, as it might be considered a spoiler, but for me the reveal was less interesting than the path to get there. Aya Cash is definitely better as the daughter than as the doctor, and John Schiappa is wasted in what amounts to a bit part. Dennis Boutsikaris is effective as the put-upon husband doing his best to deal with both the illness and his increasingly erratic and belligerent wife, who, to his dismay, keeps insisting that he's filed for divorce and is having an affair with her doctor. The technical jargon and its accompanying visuals are arresting, sometimes assaulting, but I'm a nerd so I enjoyed it. Tthe power of this piece, though is Metcalf's performance, one not to be missed.

Another recent pairing is immersive musicals Prometheus Bound and Hello Again, which I've already posted about. And although I don't think either production is great, I enjoyed being able to compare the big, loud Prometheus Bound (performed in the A.R.T.'s new club space) with the quiet, unamplified Hello Again (performed in a SoHo building the Transport Group temporarily converted for this show).

The most stunning example of theatrical synergy (surely there's a better term for this?) is seeing Adam Rapp's Metal Children at the Vineyard followed by John Logan's Red, the Donmar Warehouse production that transferred to Broadway. I was so surprised at how much the second show changed my feelings about the first.

Red, about painter Mark Rothko and his (fictional?) assistant Ken, is just a phenomenal play. Eddie Redmayne and Alfred Molina (I will not think of him as Doc Ock!) gave career performances infusing the talk-heavy script with irresistible energy. But the play itself is perfect, never feeling dull or preachy even during long monologues about, well, art. The whole production was flawless, especially the canvas priming--probably the most visually stunning scene I've ever seen on stage--though the opening to the National Theatre's current production of Frankenstein is right up there. (I'm so excited that the SpeakEasy Stage Company is doing Red in Boston next season!)

Metal Children, on the other hand, is good but not great, and I might have written it off as an interesting idea gone a bit wonky if I'd seen it in isolation. (I feel that way about a lot of Rapp's work, which is compellingly dark--and odd.) You can never go too wrong with Billy Crudup on stage, of course. Mostly, I loved how their meditations on the purpose of art and the dangers of being misunderstood but yet commercial artists play against each other and make me reconsider Metal Children, a play I enjoy more as I think about it afterward than I did while watching it.

These pairings are unintentional but delightful, and I would like to create more of these experiences but, as I said, I mostly just cram in as many shows as I can whenever I can. Tonight I'm in Cambridge to see Central Square Theater's production of Hugh Whitemore's Breaking the Code (about famous mathematician Alan Turing, who cracked the Nazi's Enigma code--perhaps you've heard of the Turing Test in relation to artificial intelligence). I would love to follow it up with Samara Weiss's Lines in Code in New York at Columbia Stage's New Plays Now (about the imagined--perhaps kinky--relationship between Charles Babbage, father of the computer, and Ada Lovelace, the world's first computer programmer), but it's playing only April 14 at 2, April 16 at 7, and April 17 at 2. Alas. I do hope I get to read it, though!

ETA: Yes, I get to read it! Thanks, Samara! Also, I just found out that one of the characters in Arcadia--which I'm seeing tomorrow--is loosely based on Lovelace. Isn't that awesome? Yay, serendipity! (Sorry for the sudden burst of exclamation marks.)

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