Theatre yesterday and today



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Yesterday I did something pretty rare (for me anyway) when I attended two plays back-to-back. Not a matinee and evening (2:00 and 8:00 o’clock), but a play at 2:00 and a play at 5:00, with only an hour in between to cleanse the palette. No sooner had I begun to absorb the first, then the second was infiltrating itself into my soul.

It wasn’t anything I planned. Both shows were gifts from friends who couldn’t use their tickets this Labor Day weekend. It’s a well-known fact among my friends that unless otherwise engaged, I’m the go-to guy to unload seats to nearly anything. But I can’t recall a “double feature” like this one on my schedule in a long time.

In order to prepare for what I was going to see I did the opposite of what most people do: nothing. All I wanted to know is where each one was playing (one on 42nd and one on 43rd, as chance would have it), thus making transportation between venues nothing more than my two good feet. I didn’t read one review, or look up their plots. This is what I’ve been doing lately with movies, too. When looking for something to see, I check out who’s written and directed it and who’s starring in it, and if that perks my interest, that’s enough. I’ve recently seen two good films this way: Ira Sachs’s Little Men and Matt Ross’s Captain Fantastic. There’s a certain thrill in waiting for the curtain to go up (even with there being no literal curtains at any of these films or plays) as I like not knowing what is about to take place: comedy, drama, satire, history … it’s a bit like Russian roulette. I know that at today’s prices, not everyone can take this kind of risk, but again, these plays were free.

The 2:00 show was The Layover, by Leslye Headland and directed by Trip Cullman, presented by the Second Stage Company at their Tony Kiser Theatre on 43rd Street. If you have ever seen the Hitchcock classic Strangers on a Train, then it’s the best description (in more ways than one) to describe the first scene of the play wherein we meet a man and woman traveling side by side on an airplane. Well, not traveling at all, as it turns out, since the plane never gets off the ground. They are both stranded for the night, each given a complimentary room at a nearby Marriott. Of course, only one room is used … and this one-night stand gives way to major complications. These first two scenes, the one on the plane and the one in the hotel room, are a full third of the play and are sensational. The dialogue as the two get to know one another is crisp and clean; flirtatious and insightful. I wondered immediately (as I hadn’t opened the program—another means to keep everything fresh and full of discovery) whether the playwright was a woman or a man. My instinct that only a female could write a character as fully-dimensional as this woman was correct, as when the play was over I looked it up in the program. However, if the spelling had been “Leslie” I wouldn’t have been as certain of that, but “Leslye” left me fairly certain.

Annie Parisse and Adam Rothenberg in The Layover.

The premise of Strangers on a Train (its source a novel by Patricia Highsmith, one of the great crime writers of all time), has to do with two people “swapping” murders, since a completely motiveless crime is harder to solve than one where this is a motive. Each will carry out one another’s murder schemes, so the police won’t be able to trace them. The Layover not only has its two lead characters directly bring up this famous scenario, but hints it’s the direction the play is going in by projecting clips between scenes from film noirs, those classic murder-movies from the 40s and 50s. Unfortunately, once new characters are introduced in scene three, the play loses the punch it provided when it was just the two “strangers” engaged in what felt like a very real and highly charged sexual situation. Extremely well-acted by its two principles, Annie Parisse and Adam Rothenberg, they can’t do enough to compete with the wayward ways of the plot devices which follow.

The 5:00 show was Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl, directed by Rachel Chavkin. Again, knowing nothing of what I was about to see, my first impression upon entering the theatre was encountering a unique stage design: completely three-quartered with a long and narrow airstrip of playing space. This called for a lot of neck turning and remaining in that position for long periods of time, but at no hindrance to my enjoyment. This oblong experience aided in the play’s quirky structure and originality. Cleverly, there is very little dialogue in the evening, as its six characters are brought together as attendees of a meditative retreat where no talking is allowed. One person’s tag that he wears throughout the show reads: “Silence is Golden.” These weekend vows force them all to communicate in ways foreign to them, and relationships develop (or persevere) in lively and interesting ways. The writing is sharp and focused, the acting is excellent, and Chavkin’s staging utilizes every inch of space and keeps multiple plates spinning, dividing our attention, without ever being overwhelmed by it. It’s a bit of a magic act she pulls off with enormous skill. Chavkin, by the way, will have a chance to prove herself again as a director when her Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, opens at the Imperial Theatre in November after highly-praised and successful productions Off-Off Broadway, Off-Broadway and regionally (at Boston’s American Repertory Theatre).

The cast of Small Mouth Sounds: Zoë Winters, Brad Heberlee, Babak Tafti,

Max Baker, Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Marcia DeBonis

As for Small Mouth Sounds (great title, by the way) its limited (and extended) engagement will end October 9th at the Linney theatre in the Pershing Square Signature Theatre complex on 42nd Street. It is well worth seeing.

Of course, one friend of mine with whom I was having dinner Friday night suggested when I mentioned this excursion, that perhaps an ever bolder feat would be for me to catch one more play at 8:00 and go for a trifecta: a triple-feature. Believe it or not I kept it in mind, and when I emptied out onto 42nd Street at 6:45, with more than an hour to mull over the option, my body took over for my brain. I naturally gravitated north towards Broadway and the theatre district, but when I hit 7th Avenue the subway beckoned. And so I headed uptown for dinner, home and a chance to be with my own thoughts (and not a playwright’s) for a few hours instead.

If you would like to comment on any of these posts, please do so below. I look forward to hearing from you.