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by Lucy Komisar

Photo from 'Texts for Nothing'
Bill Irwin looks for meaning and finds resignation in Beckett's "Texts for Nothing." Photo by Dixie Sheridan.
Contents: October 30, 2000:
(1)"Texts for Nothing"
(2)"A Place at the Table"
(4)"The Butterfly Collection"
(5)"Hard Feelings"
(6)"And God Created Great Whales"
(7)"Blithe Spirit"

"Texts for Nothing"
by Samuel Beckett, directed by Bill Irwin
Produced by Classic Stage Company
136 East 13 Street
Opened October 15, 2000
Closes November 5, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 14, 2000
It is abstract and physical, obtuse and plain. Bill Irwin's vivid, compelling staging of four prose pieces by Samuel Beckett is a view of life and the state of his life in word games and pratfalls.

As this is a prose piece, not a play, it was immune from the stage directions Beckett normally attached to his permissions to directors. The work was first presented by Joseph Chaikin as a dramatic reading. Then Chaikin directed Irwin in it at the Public Theater in 1991. Now Irwin is free to invent his own vision of the sad-sack rumpled man desperately searching for meaning in Beckett's inhospitable universe.

Irwin is clownish in Homberg hat and hiking boots, brown baggy pants and too small gray jacket. His head is shaved, with just a few stray hairs. His dirt-streaked face and his voice are rubbery, and he twists and pulls at both, drawing attention to his voice and body which Beckett remarks on in "body vs. head."

He sets the piece in a Sisyphusian allegory that has the character repeatedly attempt to climb up Douglas Stein's arresting steep, red-dirt cliff and inevitably slide or fall back. It is a slapstick that condemns him to misstep into marshy pond water and jab himself as he sits on jagged rocks. The physical barriers and failures represent emotional ones, an impossible goal. "Suddenly at least I couldn't any more," he says. "I can't go on. I'll go on." But he finally gives up all hope and ends up buried to the waste in the ground.

He gasps, shudders, and whispers, his syllables often as musical as notes. He is frenetic as he climbs, falls, slides, scratches, and grimaces. His language is cryptic: "to come, to change... or it's not me or chance... or to see or again fate....To get away from harm. The harm is done." And suddenly, quite fathomable: "Nothing like breathing your last to put new life in you!" And ironic: "I have convictions when their turn comes around!" Then, playfully, he does a soft-shoe dance perilously close to a pool of water. Or he puns. Laying his head and body down on the earth and then rising, he declares, "That is my impression."

The dirt cliff and rocks metaphorically represent the world. "How worried and at the same time how monotonous the scene! What agitation and what calm!" "Mother and tomb, its all here....I'm dead and getting born, being." Was that initial slide from an unseen perch atop the mountain meant to be a slide through the birth canal?

And is there a way out, other than death? He declares, "Something better must be found, a new 'no'....A new 'no' that will let me down to an absenceless way in that inexistence." In the end, in the hole, he is resigned. His running around is over. There is no answer to his quest. No explanation. Nothing. It is a tour de force for Irwin and an exhilarating ride for the audience.

"A Place at the Table"
by Simon Block, directed by Michael Sexton
Produced by MCC Theater
120 West 28 Street
Opened October 25, 2000
Closes November 11, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 25, 2000
British playwright Simon Block has created an intelligent and entertaining work for the theater about the stupid and boring phenomenon that is television. The hero, Adam (Zak Orth), has the Sisyphusian task of trying to create an intelligent sitcom for a medium that by definition -- because it exists to sell ads to companies afraid of anything that hasn't been done before -- rejects anything original or creative.

The idea isn't novel. We all know that television is garbage. But the script is strong and clever, Michael Sexton's staging is smooth and snappy, and the cast is excellent. Too bad most of the people who sit home watching the boob tube won't see it. And the people who make television won't care. Still, it's worth while as social commentary since newspaper TV "critics" still treat the medium with undeserved respect.

The play is a pas de deux between Adam, the writer, and Sarah (Robin Weigert), the TV producer. Adam is in a wheelchair. The sitcom he wants to write, that Sarah has invited him to the station to discuss, is about someone who's disabled. You see, he's gotten some notoriety by being selected for a theater's "marginal voices" season.

Adam will learn that the difficulty of walking, which he sometimes manages, is nothing compared to the humiliation he faces dealing with TV execs and their flunkies. Even ones like Sarah who insists she wants a program with something to say, "to wrest TV from the status quo."

But as people come in and out of her red and white paneled office, one learns that humiliation occurs routinely down the pecking order. We learn, for example, that "never turning up when you're supposed to is a perk."

Robin Weigert is brilliantly tough as the cool but flirtatious Sarah, in pulled-back blonde hair and svelte black slacks and sweater. There's a wonderful bit where she sticks nicotine patches on her arm as if she's aching for a fix. It symbolizes her own disability. Adam may be physically frail, but she is emotionally and morally so. Adam, of course, is in rougher corduroy and blue plaid shirt, a slight stubble on his chin. Zak Orth provides a stunning portrayal of his physical and psychological pain.

The two flunkies, Rachel (the sharp Jen Drohan) and Sammy (Jesse Pennington) know it's all garbage, but are determined to ride as high as they can.

The only argument one has is why Adam, who can't be so naive as not to know what he's getting into, thinks that being on television might be worth selling out. Is he finally just in it for the money, too?

by Craig Lucas, directed by Mark Brokaw
Produced by Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15 St Street
Opened October 15, 2000
Closes November 19, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 11, 2000
Your heart pounds and your mind races as you try to figure out the truth behind the deadly dialogue between two unlikely seatmates on a transatlantic flight across America. It's a bizarre psychological thriller with a twist. Nothing is quite as it seems; the actions and comments of the characters often take on significant meanings only later. (Consider the use of the aperitif, Lillet.)

Continuing the complexity, Craig Lucas's play exists on two levels, one as a simple "whodunnit" and another as a psychological rumination about evil, overpowering neurosis, psychotic power relationships, anger and revenge. Not to mention the impact of one's childhood.

The play is smoothly directed by Mark Brokaw so that all the bits connect effortlessly, no hint is too broad, and no secret is given away before its time.

The protagonists are seated next to each other on the 737. The quiet, diffident, almost nebbishy demeanor of Hush (David Strathairn) seems to be covering up the true personality of someone who committed a terrible crime and served 15 years in jail. Now about 50, reading the Bible and talking about serving Jesus, he is, in Strathairn's edgy portrayal, an eerie, quietly threatening character.

Linda (Kyra Sedgwick), a frenetic, giddy, jabberwocky woman in her 30s, is the kind who sits next to you and spills out the intimate details of her life. She's a feminist who wants her boyfriend to tell her what to do. Sometimes she's flip. Hush says, "Jesus isn't on a time schedule," and Linda quips, "He's probably running this airline." Sedgwick is masterful in the role, mining every look and phrase for its surprise revelations.

Flashbacks takes us to crucial points in their lives. Linda had rich, liberal and self-involved parents. She ended up doing drugs and forging a relationship with a good-natured if shlubby young man. Hush is a schizophrenic who from childhood heard the voices of saints. Later, living in an isolated cabin, he met a young backpacker.

Lucas and Brokaw are very good at drawing us into the plot. If this were television, you'd be talking to the screen, telling Linda to shut up, for her own sake. She seems to be treading on dangerous ground with comments such as "lording your power over other people is normal." What, we wonder, will happen when they get off the plane?

Only the last few moments fall flat, failing to achieve the story's final chill.

"The Butterfly Collection"
by Theresa Rebeck, directed by Bartlett Sher
Produced by Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42 Street
Opened October 1, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 1, 2000
Theresa Rebeck's "The Butterfly Collection," is a charming, clever, amusing, insightful, intelligent play about what making art does to artists. In this case, they are a 64-year-old novelist and his 42-year-old son, who fight to wound, giving each other no quarter, yet are uncannily alike. The play is seasoned by the enchanting acting of Brian Murray and Marian Seldes as the writer and his wife.

We are in the Connecticut house of Paul (Brian Murray), a 64-year-old novelist who, as everyone reminds us, has won a Nobel Prize. He's also a screamer who intimidates those around him. We learn that this i s a defensive reaction to a writer's block that has led him to stash numerous manuscripts in the drawer.

His actor son, Ethan (James Colby), is equally self-absorbed and distraught at the fact that at 40, or maybe 42, he's not a success and is forced to "grovel" by going to auditions for parts that should simply be offered him.

Paul and Ethan find release by throwing darts at each other's tender spots. "When was the last time you made any money Ethan?" Paul demands. Ethan will jab deeper by bringing up the advance Paul's publishers want back. They also share a certain insouciance towards sexual fidelity.

The audience that witnesses these antics includes Paul's wife Margaret (Marian Seldes); the other son, Frank (Reed Birney), an antique dealer in the same Connecticut town; Frank's girlfriend, Laurie (Betsy Aidem); and Paul's young assistant, Sophie (Maggie Lacey).

The story is enriched by Rebeck's discerning comments about the state of literature and publishing. Margaret remarks about Paul's publishing house that "the old ones are gone, replaced by 12-year-old idiots. Marcuse is right. Capitalism will be the death of us all." She blames it all on fall of the Berlin Wall, which, as we all know, set loose the dogs of unfettered capitalism.

The only one who really challenges Paul on his own terms is Sophie, the 28-year-old post-graduate student. They spar and joust, she first giving him real criticism, then, when he reacts badly, gushing that "You're such a genius!" Later he will admit about writing, "You never get used to it; there's always that terror." Paul and Sophie argue about the characters in Paul's book, which is, of course, about an older man in love with a younger woman. The modern Sophie complains that the woman in his story is drawn as the character's property, part of himself, which makes him a narcissist. Paul insists he doesn't have to imagine the young woman's life. Like the other modern male writers, Rebeck would remind us. Sophie dismisses contemporary male novelists: "John Updike has never written a believable woman in his life. Mailer.." She rejects the whole 20th century as full of "misogynistic creeps."

In another scene, Margaret pleads, "Let's not talk about art. It won't end well. It never does." But Paul goes on to give a diatribe against playwrights. Shakespeare could write, but he was a poet. Beckett could write, but he was a novelist. Margaret has something to say about Brecht: "You don't think he wrote all those plays. He slept with some very smart women." (In fact, it is believed that a woman wrote some of Brecht's plays.) And so it goes, with more amusing and astute literary apercus.

The acting of Seldes and Murray, those two old war-horses of the New York stage, is utterly delightful. Seldes says more with her body language, with the twist of a hand, than any ingenue could with pages of prose. When Paul groans about the use of word, "yearning!" you can feel his blood boil.

Reed Birney and James Colby as the sons and Maggie Lacey and Betsy Aidem as the younger women also create people with real, complex personalities. In fact, there's nothing facile (to use a word from the play) about Rebeck's characters.

Director Bartlett Sher stages the play with subtlety and good humor, giving his stars free room without letting exaggeration smother the story. Andrew Jackness's efficient office, living room, and dining room combination, separated by sliding screens, allows constant movement and swift pacing, one scene beginning on the tail of the other.

Here is a play with multifaceted characters, intelligent repartee and literary ideas. Paul's diatribe against playwrights can't include Theresa Rebeck.

"Hard Feelings
by Neena Beber , directed by Maria Mileaf
Produced by Women's Project & Productions
424 West 55 Street
Opened October 19, 2000
Closes November 4, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 17, 2000
Any woman who's ever had a pompous, leering professor will love the depiction of the genre in Neena Beber's quirky, satirical play "Hard Feelings."

Here is Selma (deftly portrayed by Seana Kofoed) trying desperately to achieve a sense of self-worth and identity through writing, as the obnoxious prof (Guy Boyd) explains how women lack the anatomical prerequisite for good writing. "The foundation is flaccid," he says of Selma's prose.

This comic exploration of finding oneself has a feminist slant that targets women's particular insecurities. It veers between reality and fantasy. Directed by Maria Mileaf with a light touch that gives an almost vaudeville feel to it, the action jump-cuts -- jaggedly.

Timid, bubbly Selma navigates between love and anger, bouncing off phrases that are deadly in their aims. Her roommate Filona Cornflakes (the coolly supercilious Kate Jennings Grant), announcing she is leaving, says, "No hard feelings." Selma ripostes, "All feelings are hard." The play is full of statements that hone in on what characters are really thinking and meaning, rather than what people actually say to each other.

One of Beber's favorite targets is people's penchant for making others smaller so they can feel bigger. Dr. Disposio (read "garbage"), the great writer who reads only his students' first sentences, advises Seana, "Go back to your little life and leave me to my more substantial one." And "Try to make me choose you by striving as much as possible to be like me." Irene (Pamela Gray), Seana's self-absorbed electrolysis patient, declares, "I'm supposed to be the special one; you have to stay in your place to let me feel better about my place."

The dissatisfied women seek to reinvent themselves. Selma is distraught because she gave her daughter to the care of her mother at a time when she couldn't cope, and now her mother won't give her back. She puts her hopes in unlikely pursuits: hypnosis (to turn to when laser makes electrolysis obsolete) and writing.

Filona is a grief management counselor who is uncomfortable with tears and, we learn, is not quite all she seems. Irene, who dresses seductively even for electrolysis treatments, doesn't know whether to marry a rich man or go to India. Her life is filled with appointments for various bouts of beautification, exercise, and shopping.

Given their tenuous grasps on reality, Seana's grandmother (a pixiesh Mary Fogarty), whose Alzheimer's makes her unable to function in the present, is not so far out of their norm. As the women struggle to reclaim their lives, a healthy dose of fantasy helps. Symbolic of that is the pair of magic bunny slippers that does it for Granny. Neil Patel's set is also a combination of fantasy and reality, with the walls of the yellow kitchen made out of grass.

The play is replete with funny gag lines such as Selma's unnecessary admonition to Granny, "Forget everything I said." In fact, the lines and gags make the sum of the parts more than the whole. The plot-line doesn't match the level of the dialogue; it lacks the requisite punch. Still, there's something to be said for laughing a lot.

"And God Created Great Whales"
written, composed and directed by Rinde Eckert
Produced by The Culture Project
45 Bleecker Street
Opened September 6, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar September 15, 2000
This fascinating music theater piece by Rinde Eckert sets the obsession of Ahab to find the great white whale against the obsession of a composer to create an opera. Ahab is handicapped by having lost a leg to the whale. Nathan (Rinde Eckert) is handicapped by having lost a good deal of his memory.

Ahab uses a peg leg. He has a memory of the leg he is missing and wishes to find it, to be whole, to complete himself.

Nathan has a collection of color-coded tape recorders that play the instructions he must follow to achieve his last task, composing an opera based on "Moby Dick." Already disoriented, he seeks to complete himself by finishing the opera. But he will become like Ahab.

His own voice on the tape recorder tells him, "Nathan, your mind is going, your memory will falter." He appropriates the symbolism of evil vs. innocence. "I will be like a child again," he says as he drifts off.

While the device occasionally tires, director David Schweizer's staging is riveting. Nathan talks and explains as he composes, then he sings the songs he is writing into a recorder hung around his neck. He is helped by his imagination, his muse (Nora Cole), a fantasy in red who appears playing a ukulele on a wood platform. She becomes the image of the diva with whom he has become infatuated.

The most engrossing parts of the piece are the musical interludes. Nathan, in his wrinkled gray suit, becomes Ishmael to the muse's innkeeper. They are sailors and Arab merchants; she is Queequeg and his shipmates to Nathan's Ahab. Both performers have powerful, melodic voices, with Cole's range moving from soprano to bass, flirty and girlish to profound. Eckert is thrilling as the preacher interrogating his flock, "Do you feel for Jonah's passions?"

Kevin Adams has created a set that is simple yet complex. A grand piano is tied in ropes, with bits of post-it-notes and papers. At sea, the backdrop turns fire red. Light bulbs and tape recorders hang from the ceiling. It's a production that sticks in your memory.

"Blithe Spirit"
by Noel Coward, directed by Stephen Hollis
Produced by the Pearl Theatre Company
80 St. Mark's Place
Opened September 11, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar September 8, 2000
The Pearl Theatre has mounted a delicious production of Noel Coward's effervescent "Blithe Spirit," whose whimsy covers the sharp corners of the barbs he aimed at wives who are variously officious, domineering and murderous.

The story also gives Coward the chance to indulge his gentle ridicule of the slightly pretentious very rich. Charles (Doug Stender) produces a martini by shaking the stopper at the glass. He makes showy, meaningless remarks such as, "Ou sont les neiges d'antan?" Though there are fewer cutting bon mots in this play than in other Coward works, it's the seemingly innocent plot that sneaks up and delivers the coup de grace.

Charles is writing book for which he needs to know the jargon and trade tricks of a medium. There's one handy in his village in Kent, southeast of London. And so, one evening, the eccentric Madame Arcati (Delphi Harrington) arrives on her bicycle for a dinner party at which she will do some conjuring.

Charles, his wife Ruth (Joanne Camp) and their guests Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Dominic Cuskern and Glynis Bell) are in black tie and evening dress. Madame Arcati wears a Pakistani salwar kamize.

Things go awry as Charles, with the help of a naughty child poltergeist, calls up his late wife, Elvira (Hope Chernov). One evening seven years before, Elvira was recovering from pneumonia when she started to laugh hysterically at a BBC musical and died of a heart attack. Only Charles can see her, though his wife definitely notices the vase of flowers that floats in the air.

Stephen Hollis has directed with the charming light touch of a 1940's movie. He has, however, included a clear suggestion of Charles' misogyny as he is seduced all over again by Elvira, decides why not have both women, and shows his true colors when he appears triumphant at a sudden liberation.

Stender is a crisp, clipped Charles, rather like the standard movie Brit. Joanne Camp is a sprightly sophisticated Ruth who shows how an upper class lady can lose her cool and turn shrill with exasperation.

Harrington is a wonderfully exuberant -- and flaky -- Arcati, who nevertheless appears more solid than the "solid citizens" she's been dealing with. And Chernov is a flawlessly pert, childlike, whimsical and finally rather malevolent trickster.

Finally, the British accents never waver. [Komisar]

Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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