Reviewed by Ryan Max
The Geographical History of America, adapted from a dizzyingly dense Gertrude Stein novel, starts out with the giddy anticipation of the climb up to the diving board: the bar where the audience has been corralled buzzes as the plays’ three actors enter. They sing and dance in their cuffed jeans and sun dresses, and then lead the audience up a flight of stairs to the bare, black-and-red theater. The audience is now at the edge of the board, and the water below looks warm, inviting. The play begins. Now we've leapt head first and the blood is rushing: what kind of play is this?
Hitting the water, though, brings a cold and disappointing sting. The play opens with the line “The world as we see it looks like this. In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is...Does it make human nature in America what it is? If not, does it make the human mind in America what it is?" The excitement evaporates as dense monologues like this dominate the action, dragging the audience down with concentrated currents of thought and drowning them with wordy philosophical puzzles. There are beautiful moments of reprieve where the characters and director breathe life into the proceedings, but they are not enough to fully resuscitate the onlookers.
The ideas Stein tackled in her book are big. Very big. Like "human condition, questions unanswered because they are unanswerable" big. And so it is easy to see why Lindsey Hope Pearlman and Randi Rivera, the play's co-writers, were so eager to try and translate them to the stage. This rich (if oblique) novel obsesses with some of America’s most enduring quandaries regarding truth and identity, and what is the purpose of art if not to parse life's problems and meanings? But Stein was a playwright, too, and her choice to render The Geographical History of America as a novel was a wise one: its power still resonates most strongly on the printed page. As a result, this adaptation resembles a highly animated encyclopedia, with announced chapter headings, a somewhat arbitrary ordering (it’s hard to tell once one gets lost in the murk), and actors reading the loquacious entries on American identity aloud.
However, floating in this sea of heady concepts, one is occasionally rewarded. The play has no characters or narrative to speak of, and so it is the shifting tone and mood that allows the cast and crew to show off their talent. The actors start the play by delivering their logic puzzles in a naïve sort of sing-song, playfully satirizing nostalgic depictions of American dreamers. But once the implications of American obsessions are considered more deeply, these lines are delivered in flatter, more ominous tones. "What is the use of being a little boy if you're going to grow up to be a man?" the male cast member (Phil Gasper) repeatedly asks in one scene, staring out at the audience, wearing a crisp suit in place of his saggy flannel. The contrast to his earlier delivery—not to mention the rare line that is rendered directly (and not, as is usual, in a swirl of word play and repetition)—makes for a powerful moment.
The stage direction also provides moments of stark beauty. One scene opens with all three characters backlit and hunched over asleep on one another: they woozily rise almost as one creature. Another sequence has the cast using cameras to snap shots of one another and the audience, cutting through the dark with startlingly bright flashes. This moment wonderfully marries the meaning to the medium: the actors are rambling (somewhat intelligibly) about identity, which when perceived and acted out is just like a photograph: a tiny and limited rendering of reality, without all of the messy confusion of truth. It is moment of which Stein would be proud.
And then there are the meta-references that abound in the play. From working with characters that aren't really characters (which is surely makes some comment on identity), to explicit references to the play and audience from within the play, self-reference is not handled as carefully as such a tricky tool demands. Some instances are very clever: the conflation of the performance by the actors and the more figurative performance that identity requires are played with and satirized to great effect. But that is not always the case. Take, for instance, a line uttered multiple time which seems to poke fun at the play's own insecurities and inaccessibility, a line that the play's writers should have regarded with much less irony: "And how do you like what you are / And how are you what you are / And has this to do with the human mind? / I do not think I would care about that as a play." And that is the problem exactly.
The Geographical History of America (60 minutes; no intermission)
The Red Room / KGB Bar (85 E. 4th Street.)
Through May 23