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).
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)
Fly by Night is a funny, poignant, enjoyable musical. It’s a lot of fun and I recommend you see it.
Harold’s mother has died and, when going through her things with his father, Harold sees a guitar that he never knew she had. He goes home with it and when he’s not working in a New York City sandwich shop, he’s learning how to play the guitar and trying to write songs.
Daphne has done some community theater in her small town in South Dakota. Now she’s ready for the big time—she moves to New York City to see if she can get to Broadway. She brings the family car and her sister Miriam with her—Miriam is good with maps and also makes a mean cup of coffee. Miriam goes reluctantly, since she is content pouring coffee at the town diner. She’s a stargazer not an aspiring star and it’s hard to see the stars in the sky in New York.
There is more than one love triangle when Harold crosses paths with Daphne and Miriam. but this is not a light farce or story of mistaken identities. It’s about themes like love, fate and chance, hope and disappointment, dreams and realities, the healing power of music told with clever writing that had me laughing out loud.
At one point, a couple is talking about breaking off their engagement. They say that the vows they hear are “for worse, for poorer, in sickness, until death do us part.”
Some of the humor revolves around the sandwich shop where Harold works and the owner of the shop. I’m still repeating the mantra “mayonnaise, meat, cheese, lettuce”.
The storyline is not linear. It jumps ahead and then goes back to explain what just happened. Things build to a climax on the night of the Northeast blackout on November 9, 1965.
The music is more rock ‘n roll than Broadway musical. The band (Foe Destroyer) is center stage. And in addition to playing the music, with an almost sleight of hand, they give props to the actors.
The stage itself is entertaining. Plain tiered levels, what looks like a floorboard opens like a bench. Inside is enough detail–phone, alarm clock, cushions–to indicate a bedroom or living room of a New York apartment.
If you want to know more: the New York Times did a feature about the three writers of the show, Will Connolly, Michael Mitnick and Kim Rosenstock.
Conceived by Kim Rosenstock; written by Will Connolly, Michael Mitnick and Ms. Rosenstock; directed by Carolyn Cantor; choreographed by Sam Pinkleton; sets by David Korins; costumes by Paloma Young; lighting by Jeff Croiter; sound by Ken Travis and Alex Hawthorn; production stage manager, Kyle Gates; general manager, Carol Fishman. Presented by Playwrights Horizons, Tim Sanford, artistic director; Leslie Marcus, managing director. At Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, Clinton; 212-279-4200, phnyc.org. Through June 29. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.
WITH: Henry Stram (Narrator), Adam Chanler-Berat (Harold McClam), Peter Friedman (Mr. McClam), Patti Murin (Daphne), Allison Case (Miriam), Michael McCormick (Crabble) and Bryce Ryness (Joey Storms).
Red Eye to Havre de Grace is a play about Edgar Allen Poe. It includes some of Poe’s works, and incorporates reports about Poe’s last days, but is more of a portrayal of a man overtaken by obsession and madness.
Light on dialogue, this play combines dance and music to depict hallucinations and dreams. Many of these hallucinations and dreams feature Alessandra L. Larson who, silently and gracefully, plays Poe’s wife who died young after a long illness from tuberculosis.
In one of the most magical moments, Poe throws a square of grass onto the stage, takes off one shoe and sock, and is sitting quietly enjoying the feel of the grass on his bare foot, when a hand reaches up out of the grass. The hand becomes a full body—that of the nymph-like Larson, who, through her dancing around Poe–almost pulling him back through the grass–gives us a sense of the grief that still overwhelms Poe years after Mrs. Poe’s death.
Another highlight of Red Eye to Havre de Grace is the music which is composed and performed by the principal creators of the show, brothers Jeremy and David Wilhelm. David, who doesn’t speak, is on the piano most of the evening—his music ranges from melodic show music to the avant-garde. At some point in the evening we are surprised to learn that the sound effects—like those of a train—are coming from Wilhelm’s piano. The final scene has Wilhelm and two other performers playing by sliding pieces of strings back and forth across the piano’s strings.
Jeremy, who sings and plays music, and performs a few characters in the show, starts out as a mild-mannered, slightly bumbling park ranger (who has his own website) and then surprises us with his deep, commanding voice.
One of the musical moments of the show is a Spanish flamenco piece, with David Wilhelm on the guitar, some traditional “palmas”, shot glasses serving as percussion. The piece is enjoyable, but its only connection to the play seems to be that one of Poe’s poems has the title “Eldorado” .
The program guide contains a production history which starts in 1849 with the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s final work. One of the entries occurs in 1997 when the two creators of the play purchase a table for $20. That table, together with a door and a bed frame, are manipulated to form a changing set. In one scene, the interaction between two characters and the door and bed frame convey a trip through the corridors and stairs of a faded hotel. We feel like we are watching a three card monte-style trick.
All in all, the moody show offered plenty of surprises and moments of magic.
Created by Thaddeus Phillips, Jeremy Wilhelm, Geoff Sobelle, David Wilhelm and Sophie Bortolussi, with Ean Sheehy for Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental; directed by Mr. Phillips; sets by Mr. Phillips; costumes by Rosemarie McKelvey; lighting by Drew Billiau; sound by Robert Kaplowitz; choreography by Ms. Bortolussi; production stage manager, Lindsey Turteltaub; music by Wilhelm Bros. & Co. Presented by New York Theater Workshop, James C. Nicola, artistic director; Jeremy Blocker, managing director. At New York Theater Workshop, 79 East Fourth Street, East Village; 212-279-4200, nytw.org. Through June 1. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
WITH: Alessandra L. Larson (Virginia Poe), Ean Sheehy (Edgar Allan Poe), David Wilhelm and Jeremy Wilhelm.