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Thursday, March 27, 2008

From Harlem to the Bronx

ProACTive Artists deserves plaudits for staging two short Israel Horovitz plays. They also deserve credit for choosing both an Obie-winner, The Indian Wants the Bronx, and the rarely performed Rats. They deserve appreciation for every piece of their efforts. Unfortunately, we cannot applaud them for giving Horovitz’s dialogue and stage directions much life off the page. This double-bill gives us the chance to enjoy Horovitz but leaves us pondering the depth and power that we didn’t see.

Reviewed by Sarah Krasnow

Massachusetts-born playwright Israel Horovitz holds the curious honor of being a celebrated American playwright whose sensitive, topical, and very American works are most popular in Europe. At home, his name rings familiar to many, but half the time it turns out we were thinking of Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz (Israel’s son). The off-off-Broadway crowd will know Horovitz’s Line, now in its 33rd year at the Thirteenth Street Theater, but only two of his pieces have appeared on Broadway. Producers might do well to increase the visibility of his worthy work – after all, he has published over fifty plays. For this reason, ProACTive Artists deserves plaudits for staging two of Horovitz’s one-acts. They also deserve credit for choosing both an Obie-winner, The Indian Wants the Bronx, and the rarely performed Rats. They deserve appreciation for every piece of their efforts. Unfortunately, we cannot applaud them for giving Horovitz’s dialogue and stage directions much life off the page. ProACTive Artists’ production at Manhattan Theatre Source provides the valuable opportunity to get acquainted with these two pieces, but leaves us pondering the depth and power that we didn’t see.

Both Rats and The Indian Wants the Bronx feature only three characters. Appearing first in the double-bill, the 20-minute Rats includes city rat Jebbie, king of the Harlem sewers; country rat Bobby, a greenhorn from Greenwich; and a human baby. Clad in old sweatpants and dirty furry vests, Jebbie (Roy DeVito) and Bobby (Delanie Shawn Murray) exude so much rattiness, we barely need the play’s title to hint that they’re not human. After an initial scuffle, Bobby explains his journey’s purpose (to get in on rodent-friendly Harlem territory) and Jebbie admits to his own rise from (or in this case, to) the gutter. Their respective tales bring up compelling parallels between the rat and human realms: vermin too want to move up in the world, to a place where they can find comfort and collect property (Bobby brings fine cheeses, his family heirlooms, for bartering purposes). Soon it dawns on us that, for a rat, an affluent human neighborhood constitutes unlivable poverty while human squalor provides a rat with everything he needs. In a disturbing comparison to human residents of tough neighborhoods, we also learn that when you’re a rat, you can expect to die young and often by another’s hand.

Throughout this swapping of personal stories, DeVito and Murray paint a convincing picture of the literal rat race, with droll takes on how a Harlem and a Greenwich rat might speak. But when the attention moves to the baby in Jebbie’s room and we learn that Bobby wants to kill her while Jebbie wants to protect her, we should see a real rotation in the tension and power between these two. Instead, little in the actors’ demeanors shifts. A weak spot has shown up in Jebbie’s hard shell and he should be panicking, but the assured and aggressive roll of DeVito’s rough-and-tumble speech barely alters. Murray, on the other hand, has revealed too much too quickly about his ruthless Bobby, and his viciousness does not deliver the sudden jolt it should. However, a piece as intriguing as Rats cannot help but sharpen our appetite for urban decay. ProACTive Artists has made a good choice in putting it first, and as the lights dim and stagehands place garbage cans onstage for the next play, we’re ready for more New York grunginess.

In The Indian Wants the Bronx, the lone Gupta (Himad Beg) stands at a bus stop at night amidst fallen leaves and newspapers, when Murph (Doug Schneider) and Joey (Josh Farhadi) come jostling in. Guffawing, whooping, yelling, “Pussyface!” at someone in an upstairs window – we’re not surprised when, the moment they spy Gupta, the slurs start to flow. So complete in their ignorance they can’t decide on Gupta’s country of origin, the remarks range from “Turkie” (as in Turkish), to lumping Indian from India with American Indian and asking, “You got any little Indians running around your teepee?” As the two punks, Schneider and Farhadi sport spot-on Bronx accents and have interesting, ethnic, New Yorky faces; in his cap and jeans, Farhadi looks enough like a classic Manhattan kid to offer a Wall Street businessman a shoeshine or a paper. They strut around and heckle Gupta, playing keep-away with his ID card and showing him a photocopy of Murph’s bare behind. Schneider and Farhadi do a fine job portraying street thugs, but they don’t develop beyond the horseplay to the real grit, and soon we see that the same problem that occurred in Rats is occurring here. Merely delinquent at the beginning, Murph should evolve into the “bad” guy in contrast with Joey’s “good” (or “better”) guy; the concept comes through, but the performances don’t. Schneider never builds Murph into the scary sadist he is. For Farhadi, the problem lies not in getting stuck but in finding a sticking point. Less dangerous than Murph but more volatile, Joey lets certain things set him off (he commits the first act of violence against Gupta), but the portrayal doesn’t have enough of a foundation to explain why. As Murph’s cruelty increases, Joey’s own private battle drives him away, physically and mentally, from Murph and Gupta, but we’re not sure where the emotions came from, and during his silent moments, we forget that he’s there.

Awkward staging creates a few other problems. Although Joey and Murph taunt Gupta with increasing aggression, they don’t seem to be blocking his exit in any way. Yet through taunt after taunt, Gupta stands tolerantly by the bus station until the threats have him really, really worried - why didn’t he run at the first, second, or third sign of trouble? Gupta also has ample time to avail himself of the phone booth next at the stop. The booth later comes across as a horror movie prop when Murph lets Gupta talk to his son -- only to cut the cord -- but until then, nothing’s stopping him from popping in a dime. Why should both victim and tormentor ignore such a significant escape route for so long? As Gupta, Himad Beg gives the most convincing performance here, mastering the difficult task of acting as though he understands nothing. However, he cannot understand so little that it wouldn’t occur to him to try to get help.

The late 1960’s New York of Rats and The Indian Wants the Bronx has since experienced Giuliani, gentrification, Gucci – today the city might seem to have little in common with its former self. Yet we still recognize it in these plays, as the rats, the bus stops, the foreign visitors, and the rowdy punks never went away. In From Harlem to the Bronx, we do see New York. But we want to forge beyond the dingy apartments and discarded newspapers to Jebbie’s bristling fur, Bobby’s bared fangs, Joey’s knitting brow, Murph’s eyes sharp with menace. This evening, we have to settle for something more like a photograph.

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