Just because it hasn't been done before doesn't mean it should: a cross between a staged reading, a cold audition, and a warm heart, An Oak Tree is so forcefully different that at times it is barely recognizable as theater.
An Oak Tree is Gimmick Theater at it's not-so-finest. However, it's bankable cast makes it viable: every night, a new actor who has never read the script or seen the show will join Tim Crouch (who plays a hypnotist) for this two-hander. The play, written by Crouch, is an interesting short story that uses the metaphor and the mechanics of hypnotism to deal with the grief of memory. The actor plays the father of a little girl that Crouch's hypnotist has killed, a man so distraught by the accident that he's convinced he's turned his daughter into an oak tree. The delusion is well served by the poetic lines, but delivered cold by an actor who is coming to terms with the role piecemeal, it's more controlled and uneven than gripping. Maja Wampusyc, the actor for the 11/18 performance, may have been hypnotized: I, however, was not.
As deconstructionist theater, An Oak Tree is innovative and clever, but not fun to watch. There's a reason why audiences are not invited to rehearsals, and there's a reason why most stage actors refrain from directing themselves. Given that the set consists only of sound equipment and a few chairs (the show is actually performed on the set of Nilaja Sun's No Child...), there's nothing else to look at. Just one actor, doubling as a hypnotist and a director, and another actor, doing their best to keep up and fit in.
If there were clear boundaries in the script to distinguish Crouch's direction (hypnotic or otherwise) from that of his character, or if Crouch didn't also ask the actor to break character, the show might be more effecting. Some nights, it may very well be. But on the whole, it's contrived and, more importantly, controlled. It wants to improvise without making up any lines--it wants the actor to make the show their own with only a tenuous grip on the character. The gimmick steals from the emotion: it's just watching how adeptly the guest star copes with their role, how well they can follow directions, sight-read, and stay open to suggestion (but closed to spontaneity).
Well, it's certainly something different, to try to form the essence of a character in the midst of the action (or lack thereof) itself. But it's not exactly daring, not exactly thought-provoking. Perhaps some nights the soul comes out, and some nights it doesn't: Frances McDormand is scheduled for 11/20, Brooke Smith for 11/25. It's impossible to say what you'll see the night you go, but unless this afternoon was a fluke, chances are you won't be hypnotized either.
Barrow Street Theater (27 Barrow Street)
Tickets (212-239-6200): $45.00
Sunday-Tuesday @ 8:00; Friday & Saturday @ 9:30, Saturday & Sunday @ 5:00