I’ve been to a lot of theater lately (both on Broadway and off) and, I have to say, I enjoyed Jacuzzi more than the rest. Jacuzzi is a creation of The Debate Society—a Brooklyn based theater company that consists of two writers/actors (Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen) and one director (Oliver Butler).
I had seen their Blood Play at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival a couple of years ago—a play that featured the basement tiki bar of a surburban home, odd retro drink concoctions, friendly neighbors and a touch of malevolence. And I saw Hannah Bos perform in Will Eno’s play The Open House earlier this year.
So when I saw that tickets for their new work Jacuzzi were selling out fast, I grabbed a ticket, and became an Ars Nova at the same time (where I saw the terrific Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 in its original incarnation).
The theater has been turned on its side–Instead of having the show at one end of the rectangular room, the set is a long and narrow living room down the side of the theater. There are just three rows of seats for the audience and the nice tiering guarantees everyone a good view. The living room is part of a vacation home in Colorado mountains. It is ski season and snowy outside, but the living room contains a working jacuzzi and throughout the performance, the four actors are hopping in and out of it.
When the play begins, a couple (played by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen) are in the jacuzzi. We think that they are vacationers who have rented the ski chalet. A third person arrives. Handsome and preppie looking, it turns out he is Bo, the son (played by Chris Lowell) of the homeowner. He is supposed to be meeting his father the next day and wasn’t expecting anyone to be in the home. Bo assumes that the couple are renter just as we are starting to get the sense that maybe they are not. Bo has never held a job and lives off the money of his recently divorced parents. He says that his father is paying him to spend time with him at the house–isn’t that sad, he adds. The next day, the father (played by Peter Friedman, who I have seen recently in The Great God Pan, The Open House and Fly by Night) arrives and things start to get interesting.
I don’t want to say too much—because a lot of the fun of watching the play is trying to figure out what is going on.
I love the way the play reveals itself slowly—you never know exactly what the truth is. I enjoyed watching for the silent clues in the facial expressions of Hannah and Paul and their wordless signals to each other. Nothing is exactly what it seems–particularly in the motivations and personalities of the characters. All of the characters are flawed—the son doesn’t treat people very well and perhaps, has a skeleton or two in his closet. The father, together with his ex-wife, wrote bestsellers about their son’s development while he was growing up—embarrassing him and making a psychological lab rat out of him and his friends. The couple must be up to no good, but it seems the woman is also trying to bring the emotionally estranged son and father back together.
The ski chalet which is like a fifth character also contains mysteries–it appears to be pure 70’s–a VCR, a TV that’s not flat screen, lots of knick knacks which take us back in time. Bo says the knick knacks, which look like cheap junk, are valuable collectibles that belong to his mother. Is the play taking place in the 70’s or is the ski chalet just stuck in a time warp?
Some of the mysteries of the play are explained in a voice-over narrative by one of the characters, some are revealed n the movements and glances of the couple and some are never solved (why won’t the town merchants let the father and son shop in their stores?) But all along, we get to enjoy the ambiguities.
Jacuzzi has been extended to November 8th.
More about The Debate Society:
Sex with Strangers is an enjoyable old-fashioned love story in the social media age. Two people meet in a secluded inn in the woods. No one else is staying at the inn, including the owner. There is no cellular signal and the wi-fi is not working—the repairman has been delayed by a storm. One of them is almost 40-year old Olivia: teacher, and author of a failed, out of print novel. She is at the inn to work on a new novel she is writing with no intention of publishing. Olivia is played by Anna Gunn, best known for her leading role on Breaking Bad. She looks and sounds different here—she is much thinner now and she seems younger and less matronly.
Enter 28-year old Ethan, played by Billy Magnussen, who was terrific in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. He tells Olivia that he is a writer on a deadline. His first book, Sex with Strangers, spent 5 years on the New York Times bestseller list and is about to be turned into a film. The book began as a dare and a blog. His friends told him that girls no longer want to pick up guys in bars—they prefer the internet, because they can find out a lot more about people. Ethan, a cocky, charismatic guy (who, by now, everyone has decided is a jerk) decided to prove his friends wrong by having a one-night stand at least weekly with someone he picks up in a bar. He then wrote about it on his blog. He became so popular that “I Slept with Ethan” websites started popping up where the women told their sides of the stories.
Of course, in the play “Sex with Strangers, “ we know that Olivia and Ethan are going to have sex and they do, very soon after meeting. But the play headed in a completely different direction to what I was expecting. I thought Ethan would turn out to be something very different from what he said—kind of like a face-to-face catfish. Since they had no internet access, none of his information was verifiable. In fact the first act ended with Olivia finally getting wi-fi access, googling Ethan, and then exclaiming something like “Oh Shit”. But, I learned in Act II, I was wrong.
Act II. We jump ahead in time. Ethan and Olivia are still seeing each other. Everything he told her was true. Olivia is trying to reconcile the Ethan she knows with his public persona. In the meantime, he has used his publishing connections to help Olivia get her novel published, but now he would like to start an online publishing venture and he would like her to help him with the rights to her book.
It turns out the play is an old-fashioned love story, exploring questions like how well do we know our partners? How do relationships change as partners grow and mature? How much of relationships are love and how much opportunism? How much is timing? How does the success of a partner change a relationship? How much does age matter? Where does lust end and love start?
Sex With Strangers
By Laura Eason; directed by David Schwimmer; sets by Andromache Chalfant; costumes by ESosa; lighting by Japhy Weideman; sound by Fitz Patton; production stage manager, Scott Taylor Rollison; associate artistic director, Christopher Burney; production manager, Jeff Wild; general manager, Seth Shepsle. Presented by Second Stage Theater, Carole Rothman, artistic director; Casey Reitz, executive director. At Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, Clinton; 212-246-4422, 2st.com. Through Aug. 31. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.
WITH: Anna Gunn (Olivia) and Billy Magnussen (Ethan).
The theme of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival is “unboring,” and “get unbored” but not all the shows live up to this.
Two of the shows I saw featured a young woman telling a true story of her life with the accompaniment of a male partner and music.
In Near Gone, Katherina Deva tells of a near death experience of her 4-year old sister.
She tells the story in her native Bulgarian language and Alister Lownie, her partner in Two Destination Language, translates. It is a story of sorrow and pain, intermingled with criticism of medical and city services in Sofia. The story is told sparingly, though some of the words are uttered repeatedly. Punctuating the words, loud recorded music plays (mostly Balkan wedding music of Goran Bregovic) and Katherina moves and dances in a frenzy. She clutches bunches of carnations (400 flowers in total during the performance) which break and fly wildly in the air.
Though it is clear that Katherina’s dance is one of pain, the show draws a thin line between celebration and mourning. Bregovic’s band is called the Wedding and Funeral Orchestra and the music, the flowers and even the dancing could easily be part of either. I found the story, music and dancing too repetitive and was bored. The deep pain and suffering exhibited by Katherina was hard to reconcile with the ultimate positive outcome (which I had guessed from the name of the show).
Leaving Home Party
In Leaving Home Party, Catherine Ireton tells of leaving her Irish hometown to move to Glasgow a couple years after college. She is afraid she will end up spending her life without seeing the world. She admires an aunt who travelled extensively during her life, but died right near her birthplace, but when Catherine leaves home, she feels like an outsider and overwhelmed by the differences (I admit, I had trouble understanding her culture shock—of all the places one could move, Scotland doesn’t seem so different from Ireland).
The show is a musical, with Ireton singing original songs with words that relate to the narrative. She is accompanied by Ignacio Agrimbau on keyboards, guitars and a number of less familiar instruments like a Thai khaen, a Cuban tres and a cajon. (His instrumentals are the best part of the show).
Ireton describes how she is not in control of her life. She turns down a two year cellphone contract but spends more than two years with pay as you go. She works dead end jobs and follows projects brought to her by friends and boyfriends. She says she allows her life to be guided and determined by others.
Eventually she heads back to Ireland and then has an epiphany. What that is is not clear. Does she stay in Ireland? Does she go back to Scotland? Somehow the show is over and the audience is satisfied but I have failed to see a transformation or an explanation for why she feels differently about her life. Has she taken control of her life? Has she decided she is comfortable in Scotland? Also she has failed to mention that perhaps her life is more focused than she lets on. Apparently the reason she originally went to Glasgow was to work with Belle and Sebastian. She doesn’t mention this or any of the successes she had along the way.
My ratings of these shows and the 35 others I saw can be found here.
A number of shows that I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival had formats that I had never experienced in theater before. But, though, I found them interesting, they were not successful.
Before attending the Fringe Festival (this was my first year), I decided to rate each show that I saw on a one to five scale. My friend Nanette and I agreed on what each rating meant and as we left each show we shared our ratings with each other. A three-star rating was for shows that we enjoyed. More than that, for shows we would enthusiastically recommend. I noticed along the way that there were a few shows that I had high hopes for because I anticipated something different, but ultimately I was disappointed and had to rate them less than a three.
Theater on a Long Thin Wire
One of those shows was Theater on a Long Wire (by Jack McNamara, artistic director of New Perspectives Theatre). The audience for each performance is limited to 16 people. We entered a small attic space at the Summerhall theaters—there was a chair with a cellphone on it. The phone rang. It took the group of strangers a couple of seconds to realize that someone needed to answer it. I actually tried to do so, but instead, accidentally hung up on the call. Now what? The phone rang again and someone else stepped in to answer it. The whole theater performance consisted of audience members repeating the words of the “performer” to the rest of the group. (What happened to speakerphones?)
The caller told us of his fear of leaving his room he was in. He then described leaving his room and coming to see us. The only suspense in Theater on a Long Thin Wire was whether we would actually see the performer (though, since the show describes itself as theater without actors, the suspense was limited). He said he had reached the building and was on his way up the stairs. Yes, my imagination was working—I was picturing the building I had just entered and the stairs I had gone up to get to this room. I was wondering what the performer looked like. But isn’t that the purpose of reading a book—your mind creates all of the images of the written word? What happens when theater becomes an uninteresting audio book?
Following the directions of the person at the other end of the line, the phone was handed off to three others and then back to the first. Sometimes the caller requested that everyone repeat specific phrases, or clap, or look out the window. I wondered why we all followed the directions to a “T”. Though two people left the room early in the show, the rest of us did exactly as we were told. I also found it interesting to observe how people ended up with the phone. Is that what the show was about? Group dynamics? Co-operation? Leadership? Conformity? If so, it was done at the expense of boredom.
I gave the show 2 stars—I didn’t like it. It held my interest because I kept hoping for more, but in the end, there was no pay off. The Fringe Festival’s theme this year is “unboring”. The telephone caller in Theater on a Long Wire didn’t get the message.
The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland
Another unique theater experience was The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland. The stage is divided in two. Audience members are split. Some start out on one side and some, the other. Halfway through the show, the audience switches sides.
The two parts of the stage are divided by a wall with windows. Window shades block the view of the other side of the stage. When the performance started, I could hear some of what was happening on the other part of the stage. Occasionally actors from that side would enter the stage on my side. At some point the shades were lifted and I had a better view of the other stage.
On my side, I was viewing a man in a blue hospital outfit. Doctor or patient? An actor comes from the other side of the stage and sits on a chair—apparently he is a patient and the man in blue is his psychiatrist. On the other side, from what I can here, there is a family—perhaps a mother and her sons. Is this the past of the patient? Are these voices he is hearing? The psychiatrist seems to be troubled as well. Is he hearing voices too? We get a glimpse of an actor on the other stage—he looks very much like the psychiatrist. Is there some relation? Are some aspects of the family on the other side actually part of the psychiatrist’s past or present?
When we switch to the side with the family, what is happening is just as elusive. The words spoken are bits and pieces, there isn’t a real conversation. The mother speaks about Dracula, saying that he was Irish. The characters discuss what to eat and ask where father has gone.
None of my questions are answered and I never get enough clues to make sense of it all.
For me, one of the more interesting aspects of the show relates to multi-tasking. The second half of the show is, for the most part, a repeat of the first half—but now seen from the other stage. During the second half, I hear sentences spoken that I didn’t notice before. Some of those sentences come from the side of the stage I was originally sitting on. How did I miss those sentences the first time round? Was my mind wandering? Was I listening to the other side of the stage? Another thing I found interesting was the difference between just hearing something and having both audio and visual. I hear a shaking sound from the other side of the stage and remember the facial expressions of the actor trying futilely to open a pill bottle, but then I hear a similar sound that I don’t remember and can’t visualize. But these things aren’t interesting enough to sustain me.
The theater group, Ridiculusmus, says the play is inspired by a treatment method for psychosis involving open dialogue (as opposed to drugs) that has virtually eradicated schizophrenia from Western Lapland. How this play relates to that treatment method is unclear to me. I didn’t see a transformation or improvement in the character that clearly suffered from psychosis and I didn’t see (or hear) anything I could understand as open dialogue. It seemed that some sort of psychosis was being experienced by more than one character on the stage—and that it was not in a process of being eradicated.
My rating: 2.5 stars
In the six days that I spent at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I saw 37 shows. I have already rated the first 19. Below are my combined ratings for all 37 shows.
I gave a full five stars to three shows:
The Object Lesson, an original work of theater in an interactive space full of junk and boxes of stuff. A one man show conceived and performed by Geoff Sobelle, it is illusion, stunt and comedy that makes us think about all those objects we surround ourselves with.
Cuckooed, also a one man show, was written and performed by Mark Thomas, an English comedian, TV personality and political activist. He describes being deceived by a fellow member of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, who turned out to be spying for Europe’s largest arms company. The show deals with surveillance and deception as well as friendship and trust. It is funny, personal and clever. Apparently, Cuckooed has been in the works for a while–a 2007 article that Thomas wrote in The Guardian in 2007 provides the outline.
Forgotten Voices is a reading by five actors based on the words of people who lived through World War I. I saw the show on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the U.K.’s entry into the war. The show ended just before the strike of midnight and was followed by a bagpipe tribute. It was a very moving evening.
14 of the 37 shows had a single performer.
9 of the 37 shows involved some sort of audience participation
8 involved mourning the death of a parent, sibling or child
I gave 23 out of 37 a rating of at least 3 stars. In other words, I liked 60% of the shows I saw. If you add in the shows with 2.5 stars, an additional 10% of the shows at least held my interest.
2.5 stars (held my interest but can’t say I enjoyed it)
The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland
After three days of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival I have seen 19 shows.
I gave just only one show a full five stars: The Object Lesson, an original work of theater in an interactive space full of junk and boxes of stuff. A one man show conceived and performed by Geoff Sobelle, it is illusion, stunt and comedy that makes us think about all those objects we surround ourselves with.
Interestingly, of the eleven shows with three or more stars, seven were a single performer.
The shows included one (Theatre on a Long Wire) where the actor only appeared by phone and not even a speaker phone (one of the 16 audience members had to repeat the actors words), one which combined storytelling with movement and hip hop (Shame) and another (Margaret Thatcher) which featured men in drag and 80’s disco music.
5 Stars (excellent, mesmerizing, original)
The Object Lesson
4 Stars (I really enjoyed it)
Margaret Thatcher in Soho
Title and deed
3 stars (I enjoyed it)
Big bite sized breakfast
2.5 stars (held my interest but can’t say I enjoyed it)
The eradication of schizophrenia in western Lapland
2 stars (didn’t like)
Theatre on a Long Thin Wire
Anatomy of the piano
1 star (Disliked, found annoying, hated)
0 stars (I walked out)
People love biopics and bioplays. Recently, you could go to the theater in New York to see shows about real people like Carole King, Janis Joplin, Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, Bruce Lee, and Lyndon Johnson. Now you can see one about Bert Berns. Who is Bert Berns, you might ask? Well, I had never heard of him. But there is a musical about his life: Piece of My Heart. Now I know that he is the writer of 51 hit songs in the 1960’s, including Twist and Shout, Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, Cry Baby and Hang on Sloopy. His songs were made into hits by groups like The Isley Brothers, The Drifters, Solomon Burke, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin and Neil Diamond. They’ve been covered by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Faith Hill, Cee-Lo Green, Salt N Pepa and many more.
Berns was one of the most successful songwriters and producers of the 1960’s, but, suffering from a bad heart since a bout of rheumatic fever at the age of 14, he died in 1967 at the age of 38 and has faded into obscurity.
Piece of My Heart starts out in recent years when Berns’ grown daughter, Jessie, gets a call from one of her father’s old friends. The story of Berns life is told in flashbacks as the old friend tells her about her father. We learn a little about Berns love life, influences on his music (such as the time he spent in Cuba), and his years of success. There are references to his partnership and subsequent dispute with music moguls Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun. There is also some modern-day conflict: It turns out that Jessie’s mother, Ilene, has been lying to the children all these years about some of the details of their father’s life. In addition, she has been selling off his song rights, even though she promised that she wouldn’t. A couple of the characters are portrayed both in flashbacks and in the current time. For instance, we see Berns wife, Ilene when they meet and marry (played by Teal Wick) and as the older widow (played by Linda Hart).
But the heart of the show is the music. The songs are terrific. The band is terrific. And the singers are terrific.
The 26 songs in the show are weaved into the story surprisingly well. The transitions from story to song were perfect—it was sometimes hard to believe the songs weren’t written for the musical. Often a character or two would start a song, but then they would be joined by a full chorus of the 15-person cast. Other times, the wall at the back of the stage would open to reveal a set of 60’s style back-up singers.
I loved the moments when the whole cast was singing, but one of the highlights of the show was a solo by Linda Hart, as the mother. She sings one of the lesser-known songs called “I’m a Liar,” explaining that she is going to keep lying to her family. She really belts it out.
Piece of My Heart playing off Broadway at the Signature Theater on 42nd Street. Not part of the Signature Theater’s season, it is being produced by a separate group that has rented the space. Two of Bern’s three children are part of the production team. They were too young when their father died to know him (Brett was 3 years old and Cassandra was 10 months old). According to the show, Berns wanted to be famous. This musical is part of Brett and Cassandra’s efforts to help him achieve that goal–almost 50 years after his death. I was a little confused that the daughter in the show is named Jessie, while the actual daughter is Cassie–I read that the Jessie is supposed to be a composite of the two siblings.
The show is still in previews. It opens July 21st and runs until August 31. Broadway bound? I think so.
Get tickets to the show here.
Here is a list of the 26 songs in the show:
Are you lonely for me baby
Baby let me take you home
I’d go back and watch that little girl dance
Show Me Your Monkey
I Want Candy
If I didn’t have a dime to play the jukebox
Everybody Needs Somebody to Love
Up in the Streets of Havana
Twist and Shout
Hang on Sloopy
I’ll Be a Liar
Cry to me
Here comes the night
I’ll Take Good Car of You
I’m Gonna Run Away from You
I say Love
Just Like Mine
Piece of My Heart
The World is Mine
Heart Be Still
Let the Water Run Down
CAST AND CREDITS:
Sydney James Harcourt
Denis Jones (Direction & Choreography)
Alexander Dodge (Scenic Design)
David C. Woolard (Costume Design)
Ben Stanton (Lighting Design)
Music by: Bert Berns
Book by: Daniel Goldfarb