Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Theater Review: Slavey

Once upon a time I was having dinner with a somewhat well-known theater critic from a rather notorious New York City paper. We had just seen a very bad play by a famous writer. In between forkfuls and conversation lulls I had the feeling this critic was hitting on me. With a twenty-something’s attempt to discourage him with subtlety, I talked about the actresses in the production that I thought were hot (which took some doing, as there were only two and one was 78).

I also attempted to pick apart the play. It was then this critic said something that has stayed with me ever since: “By discussing it we grant it legitimacy.” I assumed he meant the play, so I went back to telling him how much I loved breasts.

The last thing I want to do is grant legitimacy to a play like Slavey, Sigrid Gilmer’s exercise in pointless scribbling, which is part of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks 2008 series.

But here we are.

It runs at the Ohio Theater until June 28, and it is a shame that Clubbed Thumb, much lauded and beloved by downtown actors and enthusiasts, must close its Summerworks project with such a dud.

Set in the not-too-distant future (one in which MP3 players aren’t yet obsolete, anyway, and a couple thousand dollars can get you safely underground), we meet Robert and Nora, a sexually frustrated couple who have just purchased a new slave (or “slavey”). In this part of the world (America?), when a company is sold, the employees are sold with it. Ted, their bondservant, has spent his whole life working construction jobs. The fact that Robert thinks Ted would make a fitting domestic immediately calls into question his managerial skills and the premise of this play.

The couple also has a young son, unimaginatively named Sonny, who is portrayed by Edward Nattenberg in a strong but—given the play he’s in—negligible performance. The child is in mourning for a lost pet, and spends most of the play behaving like a petulant dog. He easily and endlessly annoys his parents with this behavior which makes it all the harder to understand why they would have gone out and bought a giant dog suit for him to wear.

When one of the spouses commits an infidelity with Ted, the slave is then subject to torture. Before long he exacts revenge, egged on by his friend… a stick.

There are ten actors in this play. Ten uneven actors to be sure, and half of them appear to be under-rehearsed, but ten people. All under the direction of Robert O’Hara. That’s eleven people. Add Sigrid Gilmer herself, and that’s a minimum of twelve people, all working on putting this play up, applying their minds, talents, and energies to it. And yet after all this artistic collaboration, it seems no one thought to point out that the script contains a host of half-baked ideas and is potholed with logical gap after logical gap. Even the twelve apostles were willing to ask a few tough questions before opening night.

But Slavey does represent a miracle in that it has been produced at all. Even by Clubbed Thumb.

Here’s the bottom line. Whether a piece of theater is intended to be whimsical, abstract, kitchen sink, or avant-garde, for it to be worthwhile it must be able to do at least one of two things: entertain or communicate an idea. Slavey does neither. To reduce it even further, a successful work of art must be able to simply compel my interest. Slavey fails at even this—and I’ve stared at static, read Ayn Rand, and seen every episode of The Brady Bunch. It’s not that hard, especially if I’m already in the room and the lights are out.

Tim Frank as Ted is a likable actor, and one with a respectable range. He easily navigates his character’s arc, from wisecracking smartass to wisecracking psychopath. The fact that we’ve seen this type of character in just about every movie since the invention of the antihero isn’t his fault. Frank provides a strong anchor for a production that doesn’t know which port it wants to pull into.

As Lucille, one of Ted’s fellow slaves, Amanda Duarte has taken it upon herself to provide much of the play’s comic relief. As she warms into her performance, she gets funnier and even appears to have the makings of a young Carol Burnett. But overall her schtick doesn’t work here (her stress-induced sneezing bit works even less), and much of the eventual laughter comes as a response to the effort rather than as effect. Giving us such a contented, happy-go-lucky slave ultimately serves to further confuse the tenor of the production.

Moderately more successful are Spencer Scott Barros, Paco Tolson, and Gita Reddy as three of the slave owners. Though Robert O’Hara’s direction permits their scenes to drag somewhat, these actors bravely fight against the undertow with some bold choices and charisma.

Most of the effort (and, presumably, money) has gone in to the set, wardrobe, and lighting designs (how much hazard pay, for instance, could Nattenberg have received if they had given him the money instead of spending it on that suffocating dog costume?). The lighting is the most striking and impressive of all, but falls victim to its own wantonness. The final, predictable and obligatory pseudo-nude scene is packed so tightly with symbolism that it fails to be symbolic of anything at all.

Perhaps all of this could be justified. Perhaps the lack of a sensible plot, perhaps the one-dimensional characters, perhaps even the muddy paced and overly episodic progression of scenes could all make sense and pay off if Gilmer had given us a point. But what is it?

One is tempted to wonder whether Slavey is intended as a commentary on race relations. Many names and locations in the play are riffs on the word “white.” But if I choose to count colors in this production, I notice that not only are the slaves ethnically mixed, but so are the slave owners.

So what is Gilmer trying to get across? That slavery is bad? Welcome to the 19th century. That if you exploit the workers they become resentful and rebel? The 20th century figured that out by the time it grew pubes. Is she maybe trying to say that the insensitive rich wear too much make up and dress like blind golfers on an episode of Laugh-In? Maybe—and this is stretching it—she’s telling us that social standing defines us more than genetics do, and in the end people are… well… people. Sorry, Sigrid, but Depeche Mode already covered that and you could dance to their version.

The only thing I know is that if I prod any further into it, I risk giving Slavey a legitimacy it doesn’t warrant. The subject of breasts would be far more deserving.


Written by Sigrid Gilmer

With Spencer Scott Barros, Glenn L. Cruz, Amanda Duarte, Tim Frank, Hasani Issa, Jocelyn Kuritsky, Edward Nattenberg, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Gita Reddy, and Paco Tolson

Directed by Robert O’Hara

Presented by Clubbed Thumb at the Ohio Theater through June 28, 2008


brian bauman said...

This critic doth protect too much! Starting the review by evoking your homosexual panic and ending it with a "wink-nudge" about breasts leads me to believe that you are a lazy dramaturg and a latent, self hating homosexual. Gilmer will continue to pen the kind of work that destroys you and your bourgie-bohemian entitlement. Slavery is so "19th Century"? Maybe for you, but for many slavery and its kissing cousins (migrant work and sweatshop labor) is alive and kicking. Enjoy your New York bubble!

Hollywood said...

The other day, I took my 11-year-old niece to a reading of noir fiction. Afterward, I asked her what she thought about it. She responded, "It sucked." I asked her why and she shrugged her shoulders,"I didn't understand what they were talking about." I smiled and bought her an ice cream cone.

Your review of Slavey reminds me of a similar inability to see the difference between ignorance and good taste. And that would be okay- if you were eleven.

Ng Yi-Sheng said...

I watched the play too. You're right. It sucked very very hard.