Sex and the Ville

Seductions: Sherri Parker Lee and Byron Jennings in Christopher Hampton's adaption of Moliere's Don Juan.Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Molière’s Don Juan (“DOM JUAN” in the author’s spelling) was a potboiler contrived hastily to fill a gap between the banned Tartuffe and the unfinished Misanthrope. Except for a couple of powerful scenes and speeches, the play is mostly routine rhetoric or slapstick, though not without an underlying seriousness totally lacking from Bartlett Sher’s crude production. Even Christopher Hampton’s mostly apt translation is blemished by Liam Craig, a cheap actor in the wrong costume (Pierrot here means Pete, not a clown) spiking his lines with enough fuckings to make Suzan-Lori Parks envious.

Don Juan needs transcendent acting. Byron Jennings’s Dumb Juan looks like a plucked rooster and could not seduce a randy fishwife. John Christopher Jones does justice to the grumbling servant Sganarelle, but not to entre nous, which he pronounces as entrez nous. Sherri Parker Lee is a paltry Elvira; among the others, the dependable Nicholas Kepros comes off best; Anne Louise Zachry creates a dubious effect as a nude ghost swathed in diaphanous plastic. Sher showers other unhappy gimmicks as well—e.g., letting Christopher Akerlind dangle old clothes from three parallel overhanging rods for an unsolicited Joseph Beuys effect. The stage walls are covered in gold foil throughout, whether we are on the seashore or in a cemetery. Theater for a New Audience may plead poverty, but this need not extend to direction and performance.

It is not easy for the smallest of off Broadway musicals to lack anything to recommend them—whether it is the odd tune or lyric, a clever plot twist, a bit of lively choreography, a neat directorial touch, a droll design element, or a worthy performance. Yet Zanna, Don’t! manages this lamentable achievement. It takes place “once upon a time” at Heartsville High, where homosexual and lesbian couplings are the rule, heterosexuality is disdained, and the emotional affairs are presided over by a male student named Zanna, who wields a magic wand and is a fairy, nominally of the kind that prefers the bottom of your garden. The plot, if it can be called such, concerns the shifting romantic allegiances of eight students. This Yale-generated show (book, music, and lyrics by Tim Acito with an assist from Alexander Dinelaris, and direction and choreography by Devanand Janki) does not even have the courage of its skewed convictions; in the end, heterosexuality is reasserted, save for one pair of lovers. In the anti-military show within the show put on by the students, one number, predictably, is “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; my suggestion about Zanna, Don’t! is “Don’t Ask, Don’t Go!”

I once tried unsuccessfully to read Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children; seeing its dramatization has inspired me never to try again. Not even epic theater, which, at three and a quarter hours, the play (by Rushdie, Simon Reade, and Tim Supple, who also directed) is, can afford to leave us indifferent to its characters. It should also resist the urge to have its scenes rushed (or Rushdied) past us at breakneck speed, replete with Indian references and words. Seeing the play without having read the book produces bafflement; worse yet, even reading the play after seeing it leaves much unclarified. Besides struggling with all that history, politics, and convoluted religion, I could scarcely keep in mind who the switched-in-the-cradle babies’ real kinfolk were.

As if that weren’t enough, there is also the surreal or supernatural level. Not only was the protagonist the son of neither his apparent nor his adoptive father but that of a third, marginal character, he is also one of a legion of children born in the midnight hour of India’s becoming independent. They are gifted with various superhuman specialties, one of which is seeing one another. And just when you think that these are dream visions, they become onstage presences, apparently real. The story unfolds both as live action and as video sequences, characters and events shifting from one venue to the other. Throughout, characters appear, disappear forever, or reappear dizzyingly, often with names hard to absorb or just plain preposterous (Eyeslice, Hairoil).

Although a co-production with Columbia University and the University of Michigan, this is essentially a Royal Shakespeare Company affair. Only two of the twenty actors playing 120-odd parts had roles and personalities significant enough to impress me—the protean Zubin Varla and the exquisite Meneka Das—but all were adequate. So, too, were most of the visuals. “In this life,” says one of the characters in the play, “no one should keep their eyes open all the time.” The audience, too, may find this precept useful.

In O Jerusalem, A. R. Gurney undertakes the challenge of multitasking: A semi-satirical political screed must blend with a complicated polyvalent love story and a global travelogue. It is to Gurney’s credit that he does not shy away from what seems to come hardest to American dramatists, the political play, although his successes with that genre are modest at best. Here he follows the career of a rich oilman turned low-level State Department troubleshooter for Near Eastern Affairs, who, through a personal nexus with a female Palestinian activist, learns about the upcoming 9/11 attack, but cannot sell his superiors on it. In the principal parts, Stephen Rowe, Priscilla Shanks, and Rita Wolf satisfy; an unappealing swing actor and actress in multiple roles do not. Jim Simpson has adequately directed a play that would really prefer to be a movie.

William Finn, writer-composer of the opportunistic hit Falsettos and several flops, has come up with Elegies: A Song Cycle, 100 minutes of verbal self-indulgence coupled with musical mediocrity. In song after tedious song, Finn self-servingly relates incidents about himself and his friends of interest chiefly to himself and his friends, to the accompaniment of his customary derivative music. The tone ranges from gloating to whiny and back again. Four talented performers—Betty Buckley, Carolee Carmello, Keith Byron Kirk, and Michael Rupert—deserve better. The obnoxious Christian Borle, best at impersonating chickens and dogs, fits in perfectly.

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Don Juan
The play by Molière; staged by Bartlett Sher.

Midnight’s Children
Adapted from the Salman Rushdie novel; staged by Tim Supple.

O Jerusalem
By A. R. Gurney; staged by Jim Simpson.

Songs by William Finn.

Sex and the Ville