Thursday, April 30, 2009
BY ELLEN WERNECKE
Unbound Collective’s newest production In Security, doesn’t just leave the audience feeling vulnerable: Anna Gutto, as Dr. Lona Waverton, performs alone on a set whose details have been painted to resemble the products of line drawings, against a series of videos representing the other people in her life. The act of forced perspective both heightens her role and constrains the audience to see her side of everything, at least for a while, but the tension created by this dimensional conflict is nothing compared to the roles Lona has been juggling in her life until she no longer can, an event which happens to coincide with the night before her wedding.
While her fiancé, shown in a film clip at their kitchen table, tries to keep dinner warm, Lona’s last case becomes an international scramble as she consults with doctors from Barcelona to Tehran. All the while her supervisor (represented by a pair of high-heeled boots projected at head level, like a giant’s), Lona’s professional idol, hovers to make sure she isn’t using the wedding as an excuse to slack off. Leaving out the question of who would bring a wedding dress to a hospital in the first place, the collision of Lona’s personal and professional duties means she can no longer straddle the chasm between her mentor’s mountain of expectations and her husband-to-be’s dream to build a life in South America.
The trouble with Lona is that she’s a spineless people pleaser who has convinced herself that she can please all of them all of the time. And the trouble with In Security is that an audience which has presumably survived that long dark night of the soul and been forced to view life as a balancing act already gets frustrated long before Lona does with her inability to see the lesson approaching. Despite Gutto’s lively physical comedy, the electronic trickery that produces her environment ends up emphasizing how two-dimensional Lona is – a“Cathy” in a lab coat. This digital shrug may be purposefully retrograde in its opinions of professional women (because naturally Lona’s fiancé has no problem reconciling his multiple selves) but it’s a step backwards all the same.
Through May 10 at 3LD, 80 Greenwich St.
For tickets and more information, visit UnboundCollective.org.
Friday, April 24, 2009
In Tibet Does Not Exist, an exiled Tibetan monk takes refuge for a few days at the home of a Yale University economics professor. In between lectures and cocktail parties, he tries to bridge cultural gaps between his country and ours. Unfortunately, his theoretical infrastructure combined with his early 90s footwear choice of all-white high-tops makes the whole thing less than believable.
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
Written and originally produced in 1992, Don Thompson’s Tibet Does Not Exist explores some very loaded issues surrounding international policy and religious tolerance. The exiled Lama Buton Rinpoche (James Quinones) finds himself at Yale University, and is invited by the dean to take refuge with Professor Walsh (Scott David Nogi). While this beginning shows potential to realistically and believably confront cultural generalizations, it does not develop strongly enough to carry the play. Thompson falls back too many times on generic and stilted language from his American characters, such as their surprise in Rinpoche’s knowledge of Western practices during a dinner party or his recognition of pop culture references. During the second act two students drop by clad in torn stonewashed jeans and flannel shirts down to their knees, begging Rinpoche to disclose the secret to reaching Nirvana. Their imposing eagerness translates as naïveté instead of sincerity, and the repetition of such scenarios throughout the play magnify stereotypes instead of break them down. It also creates a glossing over of the grittiness that lies at the heart of the play, and the result is blatant condescension.
When psychology Professor Trish Taylor (Sara Thigpen) returns to Walsh’s home after hearing Rinpoche speak, she is truly shaken at how war-torn Tibet is. Back at Professor Walsh’s she all-but-tearfully expresses her outright surprise that “not even Dan Rather” accurately covered this tragedy. While Rinpoche’s teachings are well-scripted, well-balanced, and overall Zen-like, their overwhelming impact on his listeners makes the whole thing a little hard to swallow. In a matter of days Rinpoche has them reconsidering their materialistic lifestyles and belief systems surrounding religion and marriage. Thompson lays the repetition of such self-loathing concern on so thick that it can’t be taken seriously, especially from Ivy League professors. To compensate, Thompson takes humorous detours throughout the play, and in the hands of impressive actors like Oliver Conant, internal conflict actually arises from that comedy.
Quinones, on the other hand, a retired New York State Trooper, has difficulty bringing Rinpoche to life. It’s true that his modest tone and the slow, deliberate deliverance of his speeches help soften his imposing six-foot-two frame to that of a believably humble and non-threatening religious ambassador. And he’s got a magnetic presence that dominates every scene, even if he’s just sitting upstage. But looks can be deceiving (traces of his native Bronx can still be heard in his voice): his soft-spoken demeanor holds back passion, too, and he lacks a resonating conviction when speaking of the things he has seen and been through back in Tibet. Once again the humor in the script comes to the rescue and saves his performance, as his lighthearted and easygoing manner blend perfectly with subtle one-liners. During a game of chess in the second act, Conant’s character Professor Norman Levi asks Rinpoche, when did you learn to play chess so well?, to which he slyly responds, three lifetimes ago.
While Quinones’ portrayal of Rinpoche is stuck in low-gear, the exact opposite holds true for homestay host Professor Walsh (Scott David Nogi). Brilliant yet erratic, Nogi illuminates the stage as a divorced faux Brit who studied at Oxford before teaching at Yale. He rattles off rhetorical economic theory to anyone who will listen, and brings an impressive level of passion to the subject matter. Entrenched in the world he created for himself out of high-brow academia, his work is truly his life. After meeting Rinpoche, however, other areas of his life begin to surface as he begins severe introspection that helps him face personal and emotional elements of his past, such as the deterioration of his marriage.
Tibet Does Not Exist may be filled with inflated dialogue, but it does drive home the tragedy of genocide. However, it goes too far trying to turn this sense of morality and simple living as a means of guilting the audience into a series of bleeding heart knee-jerk reactions. In addition, embedding everything in an upper-echelon university creates an alienating friction. In this setting everyone but Rinpoche is just an ignorant Westerner, consumer-drive and apathetic. Without differentiating levels, it’s hard to argue America as the rescuing White Knight in the heat of international conflict, especially today. If director Pamela Butler had updated this piece to reflect current trends, it may have been easier to digest. Instead, the forced empathy and over-enthusiastic ideals foggily reminisce a time when he United Nations thrived and the United States government endorsed World Summits. Tibet Does Not Exist was written seventeen years ago, and has lost as much clout in that time as America: it is no longer a feisty Bengal tiger. It has returned as a docile American housecat.-------------------------------------------
Tibet Does Not Exist (1 hr. 30 minutes; one intermission)
Spoon Theater (38 West 38h Street, 5th Floor)
Tickets (866-811-4111): $18
Performances (through 4/26): 8pm
Friday, April 17, 2009
Reviewed by Lyssa Mandel
It is an ambitious enough endeavor to adapt a novel as enormous in scope and depth as the classic 1984 for the stage. Even more ambitious, though, is to do so in under an hour and a half, in the round, on a stage the size of a postage stamp. Within these parameters, Godlight Theatre Company’s Joe Tantalo has managed to create a show that is technically tight, atmospherically compelling, and requisitely creepy. Only the extreme brevity of Alan Lyddiard’s adapted script leaves Orwell’s masterpiece short-changed.
Visually and aurally, George Orwell’s 1984 is appropriately minimalist and slick. In Tantalo’s version of this “futuristic” totalitarian state, Big Brother manifests in effectively ominous and thrilling ways, with four shrill, severe women appearing as telescreens at the corners of the playing space. Their ever-present watchfulness and occasional, emotionless barked orders are heightened by goosebump-raising sound effects (sharp, chilling work by Andrew Recinos) and nightmarish light from above, changing from green to red to blue to white as the scenes evolve (an innovative and skin-crawling presentation by Maruti Evans and Dominic Barone).
Gregory Konow plays Winston Smith as a self-aware, very human man, adrift in a sea of those brainwashed by the omnipotent Big Brother. Winston moves through this world like a ghost in its former home, clinging to nostalgia in the hopes that one foot in his human memory will keep him a safe island despite the cold, power-hungry tidal wave that threatens to engulf him (and whatever remains of humanity). Konow does well with these emotions, duly terrified and motivated by his terror. His mouth often hangs open in disbelief, all the more appropriate given the head-spinning pace of the scenes, spliced together with a crude knitting needle.
Despite all this adrenaline, it takes more than climaxes to flesh out a sympathetic drama. Ironically, the human condition is exactly what this production lacks. There aren’t enough moments of quiet, simmering fear and vulnerable doubt; their parallels in the original text have been dropped in favor of constant action. The encounters between Winston and the lustful woman he falls for, Julia, should be the beating heart of the play; instead, they feel shallow and incredible, for neither they nor we have had time to develop trust and pity.
Toward the end of the work, the tempo slows long enough for the audience to hear and savor a few complete conversations, including a rattling scene in which Winston and his pitiful coworker Parsons (a terrifically obsequious Nick Paglino), having been captured for traitorous thoughts, sit opposite each other in a cold white cell awaiting their fates. In a following scene, the bone-chilling Dustin Olson, who plays the calm, merciless O’Brien, delivers blow after psychological blow to the steadfast but shattering Winston, and for a few moments, something of real substance emerges on stage.
Because of what has (or, in this case, has not) preceded it, this denouement isn’t earned; hence it’s a pulled punch-in-the-gut ending. We have to really love Winston before we can mourn his soul, and we don’t have the tools or time to do so here.
George Orwell's 1984 (80 minutes; no intermission)
59E59 Theaters, Theater C (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison)
Thru April 26 (Tues 7:30, Wed-Fri 8:30, Sat 2:30 & 8:30, Sun 3:30)
Monday, April 13, 2009
Reviewed by Amanda Halkiotis
The tag line for Brunch: The Musical says “there are 60,000 waiters in Manhattan. This is their story.” However, with so many characters compressed into one show, the musical no longer has any real stories—instead it has isolated superlatives over-emotively expressed in song. Queen Bee Brandi (Dana Musgrove) is a yoga instructor three days a week, shockproof Jake (Tony Ederton) wants to open his own bar instead of tending someone else’s, metalhead ROBBY Vee (Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s front man Maxx) is a drummer in an unsuccessful band, ingénue Steph (Cara Babich) was the first in her Midwestern town to just pick up and leave, and our protagonist, shy new girl April (Meghann Dreyfuss) has no clue what she wants to do with her life. These character outlines never develop further, resulting in an evening of predictable stereotypes made bearable by a witty script filled with stinging one-liners and snappy comebacks, but only some of the time. While compensating for the unoriginal plot outline, the script’s tense sarcasm also comes on too strong at times, and, considering the lack of despair, gains no empathy from the audience. While the characters may have a crummy job waiting tables that cuts their weekend short nothing else in their lives are really that bad. They all appear well-groomed and well-fed, and there is no foreseeable life-or-death predicament from which to derive any sense of gritty realism or tough moral decisions. On the upside, without the explicit sex or illicit drugs, the show’s rebellious and youthful energy relies solely on the rock and roll score, which starts off strong, fast, and loud, and keeps it that way.
Musical director Martin Landry keeps a tight beat with a strong rhythm section and collaborative piano underscore that prevents a cookie-cutter Broadway sound. The band performs along the scaffolding above stage left, providing an inventive approach that provides additional room onstage and adds a little more style to the show. Mr. Landry also plays Chef in the play, a hilarious bit part that allows him to continue conducting: he remains in character throughout, never removing his white smock or floppy hat, and conducting with a wooden spoon. While such an enthusiastic band sometimes drowns out the vocals, supporting actors Cara Babich and her costar Bryan Lesnick both hold their own (and take advantage of their strength). Steph may be a fiery, buxom blonde, but Babich’s soulful, husky singing voice softens the rough edges. The same pairing of opposites holds true for Lesnick, playing a slightly spacey but completely adorable Southern transplant named Putnam, and yet sings with a knee-weakening romantic croon.
The choreography keeps up with the music in style and precision, borrowing from modern and hip-hop styles strongly enough to truly stand out. Choreographer Sabrina Jacob and assistant choreographer and ensemble member Collin Frazier do an excellent job matching moves to the characters and music, providing edgy rhythm and great enhancement to the charming vocals. Also keeping with the modern rock theme is lighting designer Christian Deangelis, who uses an array of neon pinks, electric blues and almost-white yellows to the all-black stage. These elements are a tasteful complement to the silent horrors of fine dining, but Emily Deangelis’s costumes push the whole thing overboard. Her hipster-chic getups — leggings, black workboots, leg warmers, untucked flannel shirts, tight tank tops and exposed bra straps — completely contradict the setting (an upscale Manhattan eatery full of Burberry coats and oversized strollers.) By inconsistently portraying this one scene location, Brunch: the Musical instead pursues something generic and overdone in the modern rock musical.
In addition to the rock score, another sincere, relatable aspect of the play lies in the straight script, filled with humorous real-life observations on the perils of waiting tables: dealing with cheapskate celebrities or informing a table that has already ordered that the chef just eighty-sixed a special. The brilliant opening scene depicts the hungover staff sharing the previous night’s escapades as they fold napkins and replace menu inserts, a familiar bonding ritual. Later on, Brandi’s possessiveness for her tables shows the job’s scathing cattiness, and Steve (Kevin Thomas Collins) epitomizes a paranoid manager who hides in his office for most of the day. These gems could speak volumes, but instead the script weakly attempts character development by focusing on cliché themes, such as April’s career crisis or the insecurity complex Steve has when he realizes Jake has more authority and influence over the staff than he does. Such broad personality traits add neither depth nor definition, and this attempt to flesh out the characters instead comes across as forced and simulated. An all too common and universal issue like sexual harassment, for example, is reduced to a couple creepy comments from Steve about “the new girl” — relating it more to the character than the actual nature of the work environment (or the women who tolerate it).
Like a server who lets the stress of a bad shift get the better of him, Brunch: the Musical’s take on the modern twentysomething existential crisis makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. The structural elements of the play – conversational excerpts in the script, music, vocals, and choreography – all make for a promising new piece of musical theater, but they get weighed down by the uninventive personality profiles and internal conflicts of the characters. Sadly, something this predictable cannot be epic: a blooming romance, a fired employee, and a man walking out of a steady job to follow his dream? We know where this is going. If you've never tasted the real thing, Brunch: the Musical might seem like a passable meal, as the snarky humor and energetic music makes for a fun evening and even satiates an afternoon craving for something sweet. However, anyone who's actually worked in the service industry — those who still have their aprons and black clogs in case their day job falls through — won't find much flavor in the bubblegum lyrics and watered-down acting.
Brunch: The Musical (2 hours; one intermission)
The American Theater of Actors (314 West 54th Street)
Tickets (http://brunchthemusical.eventbrite.com/): $18
Performances (through 4/25): Thurs-Suns @8pm
Sunday, April 12, 2009
From left to right: Brian Barnhart, Britt Genelin, Edgar Oliver, and Marc Palmieri
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
J. Robert Oppenheimer, aka “The Father of the Atomic Bomb”, spent many difficult years testing the atom's capabilities, but the rest of us need the stage to empathize with his journey. Axis Company's Trinity 5:29 dramatizes his turmoil quite well; taking calculated liberties with time and space, they successfully show the driving influences behind the Manhattan Project. They are Jean Tatlock (Britt Genelin), Oppenheimer's one-time lover and suspected communist that had already committed suicide almost a year before the first testing, Harry S. Truman (Brian Barnhart), a president hell-bent on preventing the invasion of the U.S at any cost, and General Groves (Marc Palmieri), a card-carrying patriot whose heart was in the right place even if his trigger finger wasn't.
Trinity 5:29 may be formulaic-that of a medieval cycle with poetic dialogue and Biblical emulations (Truman is God, the detonation the Apocalypse)-but the actors, wearing Elisa Santiago's crisp, period costumes, perform well outside of the box. David Zeffren's fancy lighting design, Steve Fontaine's doom and gloom music, and Kyle Chepulis' bomb shelter replica work together to create a wonderfully extravagant production. The production even uses foreshadowing well-the play opens with Oppenheimer poised to set off the bomb and revisits that harrowing scene at a pivotal, Revelations-like moment.
Sandwiched nicely between the impressive production elements are glimpses of Oppenheimer's psychological torment. Edgar Oliver plays the theoretical physicist as brilliant but bewildered, knowledgeable but naive. His insistence that his atom bomb is safe, best demonstrated by his willingness to drink the condensation from the bomb's conductor, is a clear indicator that death and destruction was not on his mind when he created the bomb. This creates a compelling moment, but it defies historical accounts of Oppenheimer being aware from start to finish of the bomb's dangerous potential. Yet, the guilt and regret that Oppenheimer felt about partaking in this dark moment in history is at least implied, if not portrayed.
In 50 minutes, the Axis Company manages to tickle the audience intellectually and visually. The aesthetics help to evoke the “imagine-ifs” of the play, while Randy Sharp's strong direction elicits fiery but casual performances from the cast. For all the various manifestations of power in this production, it’s the power of suggestion that hits hardest: we sometimes destroy ourselves in an effort to protect ourselves. If you leave the theater understanding that, you'll be taking some of that power with you.
Trinity 5:29 (50 minutes, no intermission)
Axis Theatre (1 Sheridan Square, New York, NY 10014 )
Tickets: 212-352-3101 ($20)
Through May 9, 2009
Wednesday, April 08, 2009
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Beowulf and baggage—two alliteratively perfect things for the audacious company Banana Bag & Bodice to tackle in Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage. There are shades of John Gardner’s revisionist Grendel, but Dave Malloy and Jason Craig’s songplay is a beast of a different sort, focusing neither on Beowulf’s point of view nor Grendel’s but rather on the subjective interpretations of three damnable academics. The result is a clash between the physical reality of Beowulf (Craig) and the gleeful spin of the academics, who justly double as the villains of the epic poem: Grendel (Christopher Kuckenbaker), Grendel’s Mother (Jessica Jelliffe), and the Dragon (Beth Wilmurt). Oh, and the whole thing’s set to Malloy’s nicely hodge-podged music, be it feedback (“Overture”), jungle-like techno (“Beowulf Arrives”), punk (“Body”), a dirge (“Grendel’s Death”), or even Broadway (“Ripped Him Up Good”).
The company’s set design helps to show the various levels of the play: The academics sit in a recessed portion of the stage up front, only their heads visible, while the action occurs on a raised white platform that is surrounded by the band and, upstage, by a wall of fans. But it’s Rod Hipskind’s fluid directing that nails the emotional levels, allowing Grendel’s mother to keen for her son (“I don’t fucking care how fucking men my fucking son murdered/they all fucking deserved what fucking ass pushers in fancy dress”) even as she wears arm floaters to signify that the scene’s taking place underwater. It’s a good balance for Craig’s language, which has a childish directness (e.g., “strong strength” and “sick weird weirdo sicko”) that allows the actors to seriously play with action figures one moment and comically go to slaughter the next.
Juggling all of these different elements requires a lot of energy—at one point, the chorus of warriors (Shaye Troha and Anna Ishida) runs up and down the aisles like cheerleaders, pumping us up. These efforts inevitably ebb, especially after the big numbers—like the armlock-filled dissonance of “The Battle” or the hilarious dioramic depiction of the “Underwater Battle.” Thankfully, it always builds back up, eventually reaching a surprising climax sung in “Olde English” and the elegant elegy “Passing.” Though some of the scenes are overcooked, the variety of styles and spices keep the show fresh, and though some of the interstitial gristle is unwieldy, it only serves to make the meaty action all the juicier.
Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage (2hr, 1 intermission)
Abron Arts Center (466 Grand Street)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $20.00
Performances (through 4/18): Wed. - Sat. @ 8 | Sun. @ 5
Tuesday, April 07, 2009
Reviewed by Ilana Novick
In Gao Xinjian’s The Bus Stop, a group of frustrated people waiting for a bus to the city serves as a metaphor for the experience of living in communist China. This bus does not come, but something compels the group to stay. A program notes tells us that the play was banned when it was first performed in China, for using the bus stop loiterers as a metaphor for communism’s false promises. (The bus only stops for some people, though the country promises that it’s for everyone.)
More than twenty years since it premiered in 1983, and without the context of living in China, this allegory loses its sting. It’s just a bunch of people on a cold, sparsely furnished grey stage, waiting for a mythic bus. Without reading the program note, it’s a stretch to try to figure out why these people have been waiting for over a year, as the dialogue revolves more around the minutiae of bus schedules than it does about life in China. Girl (Alice Oh) wonders whether a man in the city will wait for her. Hothead, the bully (Adam Hedri), starts fights with the other potential passengers, trying to cut in line–all because he wants to taste the city’s yogurt (the importance of which is never explained). Glasses, the nerd (Gabe Belyeu), is about to take his college entrance exam, though no amount of education can convince him that the bus is not going to stop for him. Sound effects signal that one might be coming a few times over the course of the play, but never does. Years pass and they're still there, which begs the question: Oppressive government or not, allegory for communism or not, why don’t they just stop waiting?
It’s a question the actors can’t answer, especially given how overly earnest they play their roles.(The exception is Albert Lima, whose straight posture and carefully measured speaking voice fit his role as the Older Wise Man.) In general, however, the cast exaggerates facial expressions and movements to try and convey their fates and feelings when the action and dialogue don’t. Hothead flails around the stage like his limbs are made of elastic, and starts fights with Glasses, who can’t seem to stand up for a minute without compelling another bus-stop denizen to punch him. He falls without any resistance, as if he wants to be hit. (We get it, he’s not too strong). A Brit who works for one of the few companies allowed to do business with the Chinese government, who brags about the privileges (cigarettes, better food, wine) that he receives because of his position, gives the audience some insight into just how deep divisions can be in supposedly divisionless society, but he too begins to talk mostly about bus schedules, and soon becomes repetitive too. While a few of the characters manage to find time to comment on the unfairness of a society that promises equality without delivering it, neither the bus nor a resolution arrives, and the audience is likely to be as frustrated as those unfortunate, waiting fools.
The Bus Stop (80 minutes, no intermission)
Sanford Meisner Theater (164 Eleventh Avenue)
Tickets available at theatermania.com, or by calling (212) 352-3101 ($15)
Performances March 26-April 19th, Tuesday - Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 7pm, and matinees on Sat. & Sun. at 3pm.
Monday, April 06, 2009
Reviewed by Ilena George
Pulling diagnoses from the DSM IV and covering a variety of musical genres, Crazy Head Space is a literal A(dditction) to Z(oophilia) revue of mental disorders. Like the eclectic (bordering on overly eccentric) costumes and make-up, each letter’s song doesn't always quite fit into a cohesive whole. For instance, some of the numbers play up the seriousness of mental illness--from the hollow emptiness of borderline personality disorder to the self-destructive compulsions that drive eating disorders--while others are more celebratory of life on the tail ends of the Gaussian distribution, including a hilarious and colorful ode to "shop[ping] without a wallet" in "Kleptomania."
The sections caught between the lights and darks of disorders end up coming off badly. For example, in “Relapse,” the humor isn't dark enough to keep the jokes from feeling a little too easy (a recovering alcohol turns to vodka to solve the problem of her overbearing mother’s visiting)-- and it takes the really kooky numbers to “even out” the show, as with “Vagina Envy” (“God lost her genius when/She made the penis”). It’s not exactly subtle, but that’s when Crazy Head Space is at its best, for then it strongly evokes a mood or a feeling, exploring the way mental disorders can entrap and confine, or celebrating people who push the envelope of what's expected.
Despite a huge cast (brimming with talented singers and dancers), the small space makes for an intimate production. However, if the point is to put a human face to some mental diseases (as shown in the closing number), where is the humanity? There’s no bridge between the scenes (only wacky off-stage muttering), and that limits the evening to a characterless revue. Crazy Head Space is a varied and somewhat unpredictable romp through a wide range of mental disorders, but it needs to work on those side effects.
Crazy Head Space
Directed by Errickson Wilcox
Lyrics by Elisabeth S. Davis, Music by Elisabeth S. Davis and Michelangelo Sosnowitz
March 6th-April 5th
@ Seaport! (210 Front Street at Beekman Street)
For tickets: www.dogrunrep.org
Wednesday, April 01, 2009
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
"We're fifteen," says Emmy (Wrenn Schmidt), expertly putting Chanel on her friend, Claire (Natalia Payne). "Everything fun is illegal." Well, if that's the case, then Deirdre O'Connor's clever (but not too clever) Jailbait ought to be locked up. Of course, before one throws away the key, let's acknowledge the good behavior of this exceptional four-person cast, and allow director Suzanne Agins to get off with community service--that is, the continued performance of this wonderful new play.
Jailbait is one of those shows that's suited for the stage: after all, Emmy describes what they're doing--sneaking into a club and fooling around--as "improv, but in a bar." With such casual lies and glib banter ("They're just over twenty-one. They're not like girl-crazed date-rape machines"), O'Connor is able to play a shell game with the play's stakes, hiding, under a veneer of confidence and painted-on smiles, the dangers of growing up too quickly.
Aiding this illusion are the play's male counterpoints, Mark (Peter O'Connor) and Robert (Kelly AuCoin), who, despite being thirtysomething, are hardly emotionally mature: Mark's embraced the bachelor lifestyle and Robert can't get over the end of his six-year relationship. Both pairs try to make things less scary by drinking, and both act just as awkwardly. The elegance of Agins's direction stems from the way Claire and Robert connect, as if age doesn't matter--and the wonder of O'Connor's deceptively comic writing is that she leaves enough ambiguity for one to wonder if age does always matter.
Subtle aesthetic choices help to emphasize this, like Kina Park's set, which folds Claire's bed--a sliver of innocence--into the recesses of a club's neon tubes and dirty walls. Rebecca Bernstein's costumes go a long way, too: much is made of Robert's attempt to "fit in" as he painstakingly folds his tie and unruffles his shirt; the same goes for how uncomfortable Claire is with the attention her comfortable black dress gets her. It gives the actors a lot to work with--although Payne's character resembles the childish immigrant in Aliens With Extraordinary Skills, the context shifts her energy. Wrapped in a sweater twice her size, sitting on a small bed, and wistfully clutching a stuffed duck, she's not acting alone.
Jailbait's not a particularly complex play--in fact, the majority of plot points are fairly obvious. However, these "big revelations" turn out to be hiding a variety of sad, small moments, from the way Robert foreshadows a miscarriage by mentioning Goodnight Moon to the way Emmy's constant needling of Claire and her pride in not being an "awkward sophomore" (she's done it twice) eventually gives way to her childhood regrets. When things are said straightout, then--"I can't find my underwear"--they're absolutely shattering, and wholly effective in illustrating O'Connor's conceit: what happens when fantasy meets reality. Given rich theater like this, who needs parole?
Jailbait (90 min, no intermission)
The Cherry Pit (155 Bank Street)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $40.00
Performances (through 4/25): Wed. & Thurs. @ 8 | Fri. & Sat. @ 7 & 10