War, Love, and Rock and Roll: Jim and Jennifer, two hostages stripped of their freedom and their dignity, fall in love with music and with each other as they sing through the pain of captivity.
Reviewed by Ilana Novick
“I spy with my little eye, something white.” It sounds like an antsy child itching to move out of the confines of a car, playing a game to cure the boredom of a long drive. However, this innocent game has a darker purpose. In the hands of Hostage Song writers Clay McLeod-Chapman (book) and Kyle Jarrow (lyrics/music), it is alleviating a much graver situation. Jennifer and Jim (Hanna Cheek and Paul Thureen) are blindfolded and handcuffed, a journalist and a defense contractor taken hostage in an unnamed war and country, finding solace if not sanity in song, in games, and in each other. The play is at its best when playing with the audience’s expectations, exploring what happens to two people stripped of both their context and their dignity. But the plot crams a bit too much into a small space: a rock musical, a dark comedy, a love story, and even a timely political situation.
The story and songs unfold against an almost bare, black wall, the only concession to scenery a broken file cabinet that doubles as a bed. Glimpses of Jennifer and Jim’s life before captivity are provided by dream sequences in which Jim talks to his wife and son, and Jennifer to her father and mother. Abe Goldfarb is particularly heart-wrenching as Jim’s teenage son: he alternates the story of his first kiss with the experience of watching his father’s beheading on the Internet. Both father and son seem to defy their age categories: the father regresses to childhood and his son is forced to grow up much faster than necessary. The same goes for Cheek, who literally shrieks and kicks her legs in embarrassment as she hears her father, broadcast on CNN, pleading for her captors to spare her life. Captivity has made a two tough and intelligent professionals into children.
The actors, and the show, are at their best when they use their physical limitations to enhance their regression. Without the use of hands and eyes, Jennifer and Jim rely on their voices (an appealingly scratchy alto and low baritone) and the music for self-expression. The movement compliments their words as Cheek and Thureen deftly move within the limitations of their handcuffs and blindfolds that rob them of both eyes and hands -- two very important pieces of the theatrical arsenal for two people falling in love.
The handling of the love story, however, and the switch from chorus singers to cast members that some of the musicians make, begins to wear thin as the play goes on. In one scene, Jenny and Jim pretend to pick each other up over drinks, their file cabinet doubling as a bar. A few “come here often's” later and they could be on their way to sleeping together. It’s an attempt to add levity to a horrible situation, but it plays like a cheap laugh, almost as if the fact that they are blindfolded and handcuffed is just an attempt to make the clichéd bar seem fresh. The games of I Spy were believable as the act of adults in danger clinging to remaining childhood innocence, the pretend meeting in a bar seems to make light of the situation, an attempt at dark humor that seems more offensive than funny. The continuity of the story is also broken during the transition of chorus members to Hanna and Jim's loved ones, appearing in their dreams. For example, it is hard to take Hanna Bos seriously as both a tambourine-shaking backup singer and as Jim’s estranged wife, when there isn't so much as a change of clothing or voice. Perhaps if the band remained unseen behind the black dividers, it would seem less like a break in continuity. Alternatively, if the musicians and singers had at least changed outfits or voices, it might have been believable.
Hostage Song is at the Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street. Performances are April 4-26, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm. Tockets ($18) are available by calling Smarttix at 212-868-4444, or onbline at www.horsetrade.info.