Seen at the Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2, Sunday afternoon June 15, 2008. 4 Slithy Toads.
Following on its rather dismal main stage productions of Parlour Song and Port Authority, the Atlantic Theater redeems its season with this thoroughly delightful production on its second stage.
This may not be the best play I've ever seen, but it might be one of the first that's left me wanting to see a sequel. If anyone was going to try and write a revival of the TV show Soap (one of my all-time favorite shows, along with Party of Five, The Simpsons and Friday Night Lights) I'd say it could be this young playwright Annie Baker, who shows in these 90 minutes a real gift for taking the odd parts of real life and making them very very real, very very funny and very very poignant, which was what Susan Harris managed to do in the very best episodes of Soap (Carol leaving Jody at the alter, a classic example).
The odd parts of real life. The four characters in this play are: Jared, a 21-year-old who may have Asperger's Syndrome, may be in denial about it, definitely works at McDonald's, and definitely deals with nervousness by running his electric toothbrush around his gums; hiis mother, Joyce, is a lesbian teacher who is no longer with the boy's mother and instead is two years into a relationship with; Phyllis, a university professor who spends the entire play wearing a kind of grunge layered lesbian chic look while tending to Body Awareness week at the local college. It was supposed to be eating disorder week, but that wasn't really good enough for her, so she broadened the topic and has turned it into an arts festival that defines the very worst in academic overkill, with puppet theatre and ethnic music and -- much to her dismay -- an exhibition of photographs of nude females taken by the final character, Greek photographer Frank Bonitatibus who happens to be enjoying home hospitality at the home of the other three characters.
You read the above paragraph and it sounds like a twisted weird group, but as written each of the characters is a very real person. Don't we all know somewhere the 21-year-old who isn't ready for prime time? Don't we all know the artist who is totally sincere in doing things that are totally outlandish, or the academic so totally immersed in the world of academia she's incapable of stepping outside the frame to see some of the intrinsic folly of the milieu, or the mother who's struggling to deal with loss and challenge? Each is so well drawn that you'd have to look really really hard to find the hint of exaggeration that helps make the play work as theatre.
Each is played brilliantly. The one person in the cast you're most likely to have heard of is Jobeth Williams, who 25ish years ago played the mother in Poltergeist among many other credits. Phylllis is played by Mary McCann, a founding member of the Atlantic whom I've seen in many productions in my years as a subscriber and often found lacking (I was quite glad her role was recast when Spring Awakening moved to Broadway, as an example), but she inhabits this role totally and wonderfully. Frank is played by Peter Friedman, a veteran of both stage and screen who once played some additional Muppets on the Muppet Show. Jared is played by Jonathan Clem, fresh-out-of-school (NYU/Tisch School of the Arts and the Atlantic's own acting school) talent making his off-Broadway debut and impressing instantly.
When I saw a preview screening of the pretty dreary Feast of Love, director Robert Benton said in a post-film Q&A that one of the joys of working with Morgan Freeman was his ability to listen, that great acting was as much about that as it was about the talking. This production is a vivid example. Unlike the Atlantic's production of Port Authority, where the actors have to busy themselves conspicuously ignoring the other characters in a series of switch-off solo performance monologues, good chunks of this play are set at the dinner table or in other circumstances where the characters are in fact involved in the same play. I frequently found my attention drifting away from the person who was talking, not because that performance was bad but because you could see so much in the faces of the other characters while somebody else was talking. It was in her quiet moments of listening that you could see the frustrations and the anxieties and the sweet concerns of Joyce emerging on Jobeth Williams' face. The nature of the Asperger's that Jared may or may not have is such that he isn't always supposed to be on the ball during social interaction, and yet within a narrow palatte Jonathan Clem manages to sketch an infinity of shades when the other characters are talking about him.
Have I told you that this is a comedy? Because it very, very, very much is. It's full of delicious lines arising naturally out of the situations, and there's a line for everyone in the audience. I got this look from a man a row ahead and a few seats over when I was giving the biggest laugh in the audience to one line, as if I was taking way too much joy in it, and I couldn't help but notice twenty minutes later when it was his turn to be taking special enjoyment from one of the lines.
Every aspect of the production is meant to be seen and savored. We are intended to see that the Welch's grape juice that's used for wine during the sabbath-on-Tuesday scene is organic, because that's the kind of detail that defines Joyce and Phyllis. It's exacty write that we hear Phyllis decree her love of puppet theatre to the academics gathered for that part of the assembly without any irony at all and no sense that adults unaccompanied by five-year-old children shouldn't take pleasure in puppet theatre, and that night in their bedroom to tell Joyce "you missed the puppet theatre!" I commented at top on the perfect costume design for Joyce's character.
I'm not sure if I've raved as much about anything so far in my blog, and I could go on for so much longer about the delights of this play and its pitch-perfect production. And as I said, I want to see more. I want to find out if Jared will in fact find love, and Joyce as well for that matter. In fact, the one thing of the play that bothered me just a tad was the insistence on the ending of tying some loose ends off when I would happily (and oddly for me, I've got to say) seen them unresolved. I wanted to know just a little bit less, to have this feeling that my family for the 95 minutes of Body Awareness was going to go off into a future that was, like my own family's, yet to be written, instead of one that had already been mapped out by the playwright. The growing expense of theatre in NY and the busy-ness of my day job means I'm not seeing as many movies or plays as I once did, and I'm glad today of having at least the one Atlantic Theater subscription to drag me out for a pleasant surprise. More than makes up for the last two dreary plays. And for the Moving Image membership, even if it means I'm dragging to a screening of Mongol that I might otherwise have happily missed. I like to live a very well-planned life, and every once in while it's nice to be dragged to something good or bad where somebody else makes the choice for you.
Other reviews of the play can be found here from Variety and here from the NY Times. Most of the others I've quickly googled are similarly positive, but here's a dissenting note from The Hollywood Reporter.
- The Brillig Blogger
- A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.