Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Come for the drama, stay for the TV

When I read (and reread) the plays of Christopher Shinn, I was disappointed. The plots weren't interesting to me; I didn't care about the characters or their relationships; the universal dysfunctionality where sex is concerned (I would say "sexual dysfunction," but you might mistake my meaning) grew monotonous after a while. But I knew there must be some spark I wasn't getting from the page, because Shinn is highly thought of; that's the only reason I was reading the plays in the first place. So I was excited to have the chance to see Dying City at Lincoln Center.

I liked Dying City more than I expected, and certainly better than any of the plays by Shinn that I've read. However, that could mean I'd like the others a lot more if I saw them onstage, or that I would have liked this less if I had only read it alongside the others. But whatever it means, I'm pretty satisfied that I'm just not cut out to be a Christopher Shinn fan. ("Shinn fan" sounds like some sort of Irish nationalist group. Kind of makes me wish I were an admirer.) Dying City certainly helps me understand why Shinn is as highly regarded as he is, but it still falls just short of where I would like it to be. The characters, though developed in much detail, aren't quite vivid enough to make me care; the dialogue and delivery strives for naturalism, but isn't quite naturalistic enough to make me believe it; the plot does some neat tricks with chronology, but it still isn't quite exciting enough to hold my attention. Things finally start to get interesting in the last half-hour, but by then it was a bit too late for me to become invested; I'd spent too much time all, "More like Boring City."

For me the play was upstaged throughout by the directorial touches and tricks, delicate though they are, and that's not to say I fault the director (James Macdonald). I love the revolving stage (although I'm sure it would make me motion-sick, were I to stand on it for 90 minutes), and what it adds to the play, but there were too many times when I was more interested in trying to catch it moving than in what was happening on it. I found the performances, at first, awkward and stagy, in that too-loud, too-self-conscious "I am delivering naturalistic. Dialogue. On a stage" kind of way (directors of the world, can you not hear that?), but even after the performances settled down (or I adjusted), I found myself thinking things like, "Why are they both still standing, when there's a large couch right there that any normal person would be sitting on by now?" The answer to that, I assume, is that they were blocked in deference to the theatre-in-the-round setup. But I shouldn't be thinking about the way the stage is set up, or the director's attempts to accomodate that setup, when there's a play happening on that stage, mere feet from me. When Pablo Schreiber bounds onstage to begin a scene, I should be more focused on what's about to happen than I am on his costumes and the logistics of accomplishing his quick changes. And when he throws a can of Red Bull offstage in a fit of anger, I shouldn't be thinking about the sticky-sweet smell spreading throughout the theatre. I should be thinking about the play, and whatever it was that made him so angry. The fact that I so often wasn't focused on the play can't be blamed on the direction or the actors—again, the revolving stage was a great idea, and the performances (by Rebecca Brooksher and the aforementioned Schreiber) are quite good. But the play just didn't touch me, intellectually or emotionally or artistically, in any sustained way.

The revolving set has a working television on it, and the screen was pointed toward me when I took my seat before the play began. Shortly after I sat down, the TV came to life with a "chung chung!" I said to myself, "Cool, SVU is on!" And I half-watched the episode (it was a recent one, with the landlord who gasses his tenants) while the rest of the audience filled in. I liked the way the sound of the television was gradually drowned out by the noise of the crowd, and I loved how it became suddenly audible again when the play started (for that matter, I loved the abruptness with which the play started). I loved how the next "chung chung!" ringing out in the now-silent theatre elicited a chuckle of recognition from the audience, particularly the people who were sitting behind the set and hadn't realized it was on. It seemed like we were off to a great start, but the play wasn't ever as interesting as the trappings. The TV was turned off eventually, of course, but not before I found myself thinking, "Yeah, that episode was silly, but at least I cared a little about what happened to Detective Benson."

I wasn't the only one not fully engaged by the drama of Dying City. At the very end of the play, that television—facing me once more, after a full revolution—was turned on again, and for a minute or two everyone could hear the opening of an old episode of The Daily Show. Before the lights went down, the audience got a few chuckles out of Jon Stewart's jokes about Iraq. That's a nice tribute to The Daily Show's writers, but given the supposed emotional impact of the play we'd just seen, shouldn't we have been too numb to laugh? Or, failing that, shouldn't we at least have felt guilty about laughing at these "Mess-o-potamia" jokes, given the play's discussion of how The Daily Show and its ilk are inadequate responses to the administration and the war? Most of all, I thought, in these final moments, shouldn't we be so invested in the life and welfare of the character onstage that the noise coming from the TV is just that, background noise? Under the circumstances, it almost felt like a cheap move, ending the show by getting laughs from somebody else's material. But I don't think that is the intent of the Daily Show clip, just the outcome. And that outcome proved, to me, that the audience was still there, listening and receptive, ready to be engaged.

A word on that audience, while we're at it. David Cote had some not-very-positive things to say ("cheap shots," he admits) about Lincoln Center and its typical audience members in his review. He observes that, during a performance of Dying City, "You hear stillness between lines in the Mitzi E. Newhouse—save perhaps for the confused muttering of an aged subscriber or two." I have as little patience for the confused mutterings of aged subscribers as anyone else, and I wasn't sure how wise it was to see this play at a Wednesday matinee for that reason. I clenched my fists when I got stuck on the stairs going down to the theatre behind a woman who was moving at the exact pace that the set revolves. I held my breath each time a cell phone rang, then grew optimistic after the first few were false alarms (the ringing phones belonged to characters in the play!), then went back to my usual grumpy state when, finally, an audience member's phone did ring during (of course!) one of the play's most tense moments. (The Newhouse is underground! Who even gets reception there?!) I rolled my eyes at the people around me who asked the usher, before the show started, if they could move to another section, because they assumed that since they were facing the back of the onstage couch, they'd spend the whole play looking at the backs of the actors heads. (It's called theatre in the round. I think the director knows you're over here. Morons.) But I have to say, I liked seeing this play with this audience. I liked knowing that the people around me were responding honestly -- most hadn't arrived knowing much about Christopher Shinn, or able to tell their Pablos from their Lievs. But they were there to see a play, and they were for the most part respectful and interested, and the only time I heard any confused muttering was when the play was actually confusing. So I'm glad LCT's patrons are getting more varied fare, but if they're not taken with this particular play, I'm not ready to write off their mutterings entirely. In fact, I think I'd like to hear what they have to say about Dying City. Do you think any of them have blogs?

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