Scenes of Dystopia
Reflections on Recent Performances in New York City
By Columnist Michael Wiener
A trio of vastly ambitious performance works viewed by your columnist over the course of the month took strikingly disparate approaches to narrative and departed from one another stylistically as well, and yet had overlapping thematic concerns, attacking existential conundrums with fervor, investigating vital, troubling questions of attachment, whether we do in fact mean anything to each other at all, or are even our most intimate relationships simply marriages of convenience, circumstantial, proximal? Happily, these fragile bonds are a source of anxiety rather than indifference. Under duress, the atavistic tribal tendency endures.
Performed by off-Broadway’s The New Group, is Playwright Phillip Ridley’s Mercury Fur, a feverish, dystopian vision, or, perhaps, masochistic fantasy situated in a New York City reeling in the wake of some unmentionable calamity that has incited societal breakdown.
The piece begins in darkness and is set entirely in a claustrophobic apartment our desperate protagonists are squatting in as they prepare to host a party whose purpose will inexorably, with mounting discomfort, become clear. We’re introduced to an excitable young man whose energy and bearing suggest a past, unhealed emotional wound and his more calculating older brother, cruelly brusque yet protective. Solace comes in the form of psychedelic butterflies, whose consumption dredges up memories, real and imagined, offers an alternate reality to embrace, where one’s fate is not a foregone conclusion. Gradually the shape of their enterprise is revealed: subjects are procured for wealthy clients bent on acting out their homicidal fantasies in a hidden setting, confidentially.
The air is thick with foreboding, the space hazily lit, giving it a sallow, enervated cast. Performances feel amplified, exaggerated. Dialogue is spat in floods, to the point, at times, of incomprehensibility, and the somewhat insular vernacular is only partly to blame. These characters begin at a relentless fever pitch and the play becomes a marathon exercise in sustaining that.
Still, there are moments of poignancy that lure us in, beguile us, many of them provided in scenes featuring the unctuous, self-aware hauntedness of Tony Revolori, who came to broad audience attention in Grand Budapest Hotel, playing the bellboy, and rises to the occasion here with formidable subtlety, sliding serpentinely around the stage, beatific, whether oblivious, fearless, or beyond caring. His empathy has been battered, his senses deadened, and yet feeling lurks underneath--a somewhat telegraphed redemptive twist late in the play pulls this ensemble back from the brink.
A rather vividly depicted production and several skillful and charismatic performances cannot entirely rescue this play’s careening one-dimensionality, directed by Scott Elliott with phasers set on stun. Admirable, but in need of further development.
A consummate showman, Cory McAbee is shy, modest, too, almost diffident, his eyes downcast as he bounces merrily around the stage, his comportment belying, at odds with the dark, introspective themes lurking, not so hidden, beneath the effervescent surfaces of his delicious tunes. The conceit is a motivational lecture, presented at the New York Film Festival as part of a movie project in progress, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be taken seriously.
His family is seated right in front of us, and it adds to the experience—McAbee’s lyrics and writing in general dwell on love and loss and connection, often in a romantic milieu. They’re not generally for kids, and yet their infectious energy, embattled, pressing on, undeterred, can captivate humans of all ages—his wife and three kids seem both proud and absorbed, immersed.
Cory bills the work in progress as combination concert film, road movie, documentary and yet the event stands ebulliently on its own, lingering in the heart and mind days later, despite being at least structurally no more than an a cappella performance over backing tracks with lyrics appearing on slides overhead, and the occasional conversational banter. Mr. McAbee has once again ensnared us in his wryly-soulful web.
In Fondly, Collette Richland, staged at Downtown Manhattan’s Elevator Repair Service (ERS), what at first seems madcap, with a dizzyingly eclectic, teeming ensemble of raffish characters, becomes something rarer and more elevated as the evening progresses, part Chekhov, part Fellini, one might say, in the whimsical richness and literary complexity of these relationships, which at first feel entropic, at arm’s length, and prove to be fateful, bound to one another. It is Shakespearean, too, in the elegant poetry of its language, vast in sweep and fervent in conscience. For playwright Sybil Kempson, nature and the elemental, and the numinous mysteries and liminal spaces to be found in their exploration, have always held inexorable sway, but the revelations in store for us in Fondly don’t necessarily unfold outdoors.
We’re introduced to the sprawling, quirkily exotic world of the play in fits and starts, but Kempson taps into a domestic essence right off the bat, beginning in what appears to be a (just a tad suffocatingly) normal dining room of a couple played with antic verve by company vet Vin Knight, who has just trudged wearily through the front door from work, and Laurena Allan, who is making ritualistically compulsive preparations for dinner. They are soon joined unexpectedly by another company fixture, the unflappable Greig Sargeant, portraying a local representative, there to check up on the household. While his visit is ostensibly bureaucratic, and in fact, he is initially kept at bay in the vestibule while they eat, he is eventually invited in, and in short order these three form an off-kilter triangle, their destinies entwined.
Soon they embark on an ambitious journey, and this theatrical world buzzes with unbridled energy, kaleidoscopic in scope, as a series of unforgettably eccentric, fancifully costumed characters enter the fray, the narrative a beguiling and sometimes confounding mix of the schematic and mystical. Conversations have a galloping, fiery cadence, buzzing like the caffeine-fueled chatter of the world’s most scintillating and fabulous academics.
A sometimes elegiac, sometimes exasperated narrator in priestly garb portrayed by beloved company mainstay Mike Iveson serves as our spiritual guide and interlocutor and is house pianist too (and he composed the score), punctuating the action and striking grace notes that can veer from lighthearted to plangent in the blink of an eye. Fiercely elegant April Mathis is a part folksy, part otherworldly talk show hostess who strides through the space, declaiming and interpreting the goings on as if summoning forth a dream.
Rapid-fire patter that might seem ephemeral at first becomes exegetic, hermeneutic as the play continues, circling back on itself, taking a bird’s eye view, uncovering layers of meaning. The cast utilizes performance styles and techniques that vary, yet complement each other, cohere, ever game and up to the task of traversing this intricate landscape. The ensemble’s idiosyncrasies enthrall and only occasionally register as self-indulgent.
On a second viewing, one sees this dramatic universe a little differently. My initial experience of being borne aloft by this world began to be superseded by my desire to unlock its riddles. The cast’s energy was different and so was mine. Live theater, even a long-running production, should retain some spirit of invention, of unpredictability in its fabric, its DNA. With ERS, with Kempson, this is inevitable, and both parties are at peak ambition here, making this a historic convergence whose monumental ambition easily overcomes its occasional sticking points—a little trimming, more directorial and performative questioning of what it means to be human, rather than simply rendering commentary—these were yearnings I had for the show while bearing witness. But if our insatiability is our albatross as human beings, Fondly reverberates. To be exposed to an intellect as potent as Kempson’s and an ensemble as riotously accomplished as ERS leader John Collins’, not to mention the vivid magic of the production’s set and the emphatic bricolage of Ben Jalosa Williams’ sound design is a privilege, indeed.