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Kelly Aliano

A Vision of Heaven as Hell


"Passing Through"
Written by Tristan Grigsby,
Directed by Guenevere Donohue.
April 10 to April 28, 2013
Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (at E. 10th Street)
Presented by Theater for the New City
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 3:00 PM
$15/tdf; Box office (212) 254-1109, www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Reviewed by Kelly Aliano April 11, 2013


The Visitor (Tristan Grigsby, L) receives life lessons from the Coin Collector (Brian Linden, R). Photo by Adele Bossard.

Plays often convey ideas larger than what is present in their plots. Theater is a way for individuals to reflect on the world in a manner which common language does not always allow. However, without compelling characters to drive those ideas, a play can become too philosophical, with no in-road for its viewers. This is the case in Tristan Grigsby’s "Passing Through," currently playing at Theater for the New City. The play is often overwhelmed by its own big ideas, losing sight of interesting and provocative ways to show them to the audience. It is easy to get lost in this short play, but it is often difficult to find the way back out.

A drunken conversation between a bitter woman (Guenevere Donohue, L) and a directionless man (Jaime Gonzalez, R). Photo by Adele Bossard.

The play begins with the Visitor, speaking to the audience as he awakes for his day. His main concern: the gods and how they have fundamentally let humanity down, despite their many varied forms. We then witness a series of episodes to which the Visitor is both spectator and participant: an exchange with a Coin Collector, more interested in funds than human interaction; a drunken exchange between a bitter woman and a directionless man; an encounter with a lost businessman, who no longer finds pleasure in his line of work; and a fortuitous meeting with an older woman, who has perhaps the largest grasp on the situation and the most stamina to withstand it at all. There is no driving narrative arc. Rather, the Visitor acts as both the connective tissue and the audience's intermediary in this abstract work.

Tristan Grigsby, left, as the Visitor who encounters a lost businessman played by Bob Laine, right. Photo by Adele Bossard.

Generally, the acting is quite strong. As the Visitor, playwright Grigsby is both charming and engaging throughout. Usually, I dislike direct interaction with the audience, but Grigsby pulls it off with grace and enthusiasm. He does an admirable job of tying the piece together with his own emotional journey of discovery. The supporting players all hold their own with the complicated text and do make the unknown landscapes of this play come alive.

A fortuitous meeting between the Visitor (Tristan Grigsby,L) and a wise older woman (Mary Round, R). Photo by Adele Bossard.

The text they are given to work with, however, though at times beautiful, is extremely hard to connect with. I found my focus wandering during monologues and dialogue exchanges are so unrealistic as to defy belief that these are meant to be regular people at all. Additionally, the sparse set must be reconstructed for each scene and although its component parts are minimal, the action is further slowed by the need to move these items around the stage space.

The slow pace does work in tandem with the heavily philosophical text, much as it might in an Absurdist work by Samuel Beckett. The difference being that, of course, much meaning can be made of the silences in Beckett and the characters here perhaps talk too much for their own good. They consistently tell the audience ideas, without showing them any justification for these claims, giving the viewer very little room inside of the drama. Beckett also was a master of finding the comedy in tragedy and vice versa; this play clearly values the dark over the light in its content.

And yet, the play's conclusion does admirably try to uplift. The few moments of lightness in this play are certainly the play’s brightest. It is also helped by creative lighting design by Alexander Bartenieff who expertly balances the lights and darks evoked by the text. Unfortunately, our Visitor, who seems inextricable from our playwright, is too weighed down by the darkness to let the lighter elements truly shine through.


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