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Signature Plays

A rare opportunity to see three fascinating avant-garde classics.

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Frank Wood, Alison Fraser and Ryan-James Hatanaka in a scene from Edward Albee’s “The Sandbox” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

Frank Wood, Alison Fraser and Ryan-James Hatanaka in a scene from Edward Albee’s “The Sandbox” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Memory sometimes plays cruel tricks.  I saw the three Signature Plays on or near to their debuts and remember being struck then by their freshness, brashness and originality.  The years haven’t been kind, but whether it’s my perception, sophistication or tastes that have changed or that the plays were mere timely novelties—not the game changers they were judged to be—is difficult to tell.

It’s clear why Edward Albee’s The Sandbox (1959), María Irene Fornés’ Drowning (1986) and Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964) are considered modern absurdist classics.  They hew to the territory the truly greats like Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, the Dadas and Alfred Jarry explored, with Beckett the most influential, particularly in the first two plays, interpreting them with an American spin. If they are not as effective—if they seem somehow clichéd—the playwrights cannot be faulted.  The Art World simply moves on.

In The Sandbox, the most effective of the three, Albee uses Beckett’s non-linear dialogue and even has a direct reference to his Happy Days in the titular playground setting.  While a handsome, barely dressed, hunk, the Young Man (Ryan-James Hatanaka, absolutely perfect), preens at the edge of the sandbox, Mommy (a deliciously wicked Alison Fraser), Daddy (Frank Wood, skillfully registering quiet befuddlement) and Grandma (a feisty Phyllis Somerville) who is lugged on and unceremoniously deposited on the sand, spout their witty lines.  All the while a formally dressed cellist sits and—when permitted by the others—provides occasional background mood music (by Brandon Walcott).  They each speak in pronouncements: “Well, here we are: this is the beach”; “I’m eighty-six years old”; and (to the musician) “You go ahead and do whatever it is that you do.”

Offstage rumbles become ominous portents leading to the final revelation by the Young Man, “I am the Angel of Death,” as Grandma is literally seduced into a gentle, sensual demise.

Albee makes his existential points with a lighter touch than Beckett, but the same mordant view of life is there.

Sahr Ngaujah, Frank Wood and Mikéah Ernest Jennings in a scene from María Irene Fornés’ “Drowning” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

Sahr Ngaujah, Frank Wood and Mikéah Ernest Jennings in a scene from María Irene Fornés’ “Drowning” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

Fornés’ Drowning is basically Waiting for Godot on Quaaludes, its pace so slow, its characters so freakish in their physical distortion, their conversation so pointless, that it often seems to be anti-theater.

Wearing garishly oversized headgear that horribly enlarges their heads, and enough padding to turn them into freaks, Pea (Mikéah Ernest Jennings), a naïf and Roe (Sahr Ngaujah), a self-appointed mentor (familiar types to those who know Godot), make mundane conversation with l-o-n-g pauses between lines:  “What is it?”  “It’s a newspaper.”  “What is snow?,” “She’s pretty,”etc.  They await the arrival of Stephen (Mr. Wood, displaying his well-known virtuosity even in this cameo) whose entrance brings the play to a long-awaited ending.

The discussions touch obliquely on love, weather, newspapers and self-deprecation, but uttered so leisurely, that the effect is more of longueur than illumination.  The three actors work the lines as fully as the playwright and their hugely distorted physiques will allow.

The most complex of the three works is Kennedy’s Funnyhouse, a dreamy, surreal vision that conflates European royalty—Queen Victoria (April Matthis) and the Duchess of Hapsburg (January LaVoy), two black actress in brazen white face—religious figures—Jesus (Mr. Jennings, sensuous and near naked, out from under his fat suit)—contemporary political figures—Patrice Lumumba (an imperious Mr. Ngaujah) and every-day, down-to-earth figures like the bedeviled main character, Negro-Sarah (Crystal Dickinson in a fine portrait of a smart lady in the throes of depression).

The play focuses on the young Sarah and her struggles for racial identity:  loving her white mother (Pia Glenn) who appears as a floating figure in a diaphanous white robe and hating her black father who is represented by Lumumba. The play becomes a pictorial representation of Sarah’s internal struggles, the characters representing the two sides of her heritage.

January LaVoy and April Matthis in a scene from Adrienne Kennedy’s “Funnyhouse of a Negro” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

January LaVoy and April Matthis in a scene from Adrienne Kennedy’s “Funnyhouse of a Negro” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

A Landlady (Ms. Fraser, a powerful vision in red) acts as a lowdown Greek chorus, explaining and re-explaining Sarah’s backstory.  Nicholas Bruder, who entertained during the long pause between the first two works, plays the funnyman of the funnyhouse, Raymond, a white character, whose conversations with the “royal” figures are revelatory.

This nightmare vision becomes less and less effective as the mysterious characters floating about begin to repeat whole lines of dialogues.  Hair mysteriously and symbolically falls out in handfuls.  Halos appear on various characters.  Knocking, akin to a heartbeat, is heard.

The continually repeated lines, meant to give form to the drifting hallucinatory visions, become risible rather than poetic, but also made the sudden tragic ending the play more shocking, if a little bit melodramatic.

Director Lila Neugebauer, to her great credit, honored the tone and language of each of these playwrights and drew stylish performances from a talented, game cast who were unafraid to take their time to find subtext and meaning in their difficult lines of dialogue.   Her staging of Funnyhouse, in particular, made the nightmare palpable with its use of mirrors, levels and lighting.

Scenic designer Mimi Lien works miracles on the small stage of the Griffin space.  Her bare yellow beach for Albee, her spare dreary grey utilitarian room for Fornés and the brilliant multi-leveled surreality of Ms. Kennedy’s dream space are perfect spatial representations of each playwright’s vision.   Similarly, Kaye Voyce’s costumes and Mark Barton’s lighting are carefully tailored to bring out the best in each playwright.

Signature Plays (through June 19, 2016)

Pershing Square Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org

Running time:  two hours including one intermission

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Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (264 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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