Thursday, January 7, 2010

Off-Broadway Delights, Part II

This is the second in an ongoing series of postings about Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway acting companies that provide some of the best theatergoing experiences in New York. Indeed, I must say that during the current season, these smaller organizations have offered more interesting, engaging, and exciting productions than pretty much anything that has opened on Broadway.

Case in point: Playwrights Horizons, about to enter its fifth decade as “home to new American theater,” currently is offering not one but two exceptionally fine new plays.

The first of these is Circle Mirror Transformation by playwright Annie Baker. Ms Baker, not yet 30, is on a meteoric trajectory, churning out plays almost faster than I can see them. Her Body Awareness drew favorable reviews and award nominations (Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle) when it had its world premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2008. Another of her plays, The Aliens, will have its world premiere this spring at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

In Circle Mirror Transformation, we follow the members of a weekly acting class at a local community center in Shirley, Vermont. Over time, the students participate in a variety of exercises that require them to uncover inner truths in order for them to become sensitive to themselves and to each other. The ultimate test is a repeated exercise that requires them to lie face-up on the floor, taking random turns counting aloud from 1-10; the goal is to be so aware of one another that, as a group, they reach “10” without having more than one person call out a number at any one time. Between the exercises and the individual conversations that take place among the characters, we witness how each of them changes as a result of their experiences in the class.

A playwright with a keen ear for authentic dialog, Baker provides us with a group of compelling characters whose stories we want to hear. She has been aided by a cast of consistently strong performers who convincingly embody those characters, making Circle Mirror Transformation a memorable evening of theater.

Special kudos to Tracee Chimo as “Lauren,” a 16-year-old member of the group of otherwise middle-aged men and women. Ms. Chimo captures the spirit of a teenage girl who is shy and awkward, yet who shows us she is on the verge of becoming a strong, confident woman. Appropriately, the final moments of the play belong to her.

Finally, we mustn’t neglect to acknowledge the fine direction by Sam Gold. This is a delicate play, in the sense that there are no huge dramatic outbursts or meltdowns or moments of glory for anyone. Circle Mirror Transformation is not August: Osage County, which requires over-the-top performances. Nor is it A Chorus Line, in which each of the characters is given a moment in the spotlight. Instead, it is essential that the actors perform as a truly collaborative ensemble; the “1-10” counting exercise is a perfect metaphor for what is called for. Gold is to be commended for directing with style, grace, and an appropriately soft touch that allows much of the dialog to feel spontaneous.

The second offering at Playwrights Horizons is a new play by Melissa James Gibson, called This, another world premiere for the organization. Ms. Gibson, the more experienced of the two playwrights, has had productions of her plays done by Steppenwolf in Chicago, by the Woolly Mammouth Theatre Company in Washington, D. C. and the La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, California. She also won an Obie Award for [sic], produced at the SoHo Rep in 2001.

In This, Gibson gives us another ensemble of characters, a circle of long-time friends who are struggling with some of the disappointments and challenges that life brings in middle-age when the futures we imagined for ourselves at 20 come face-to-face with reality.

Jane (Julianne Nicholson), recently widowed, is in the throes of mourning for her husband, trying to raise her daughter on her own, and struggling to make sense of her own life. Her friends Marrell (Eisa Davis) and Tom (Darren Pettie) have found their own lives turned upside-down and their relationship strained by the arrival of their newborn son, who never seems to sleep for more than 15 minutes at a time. Everyone’s nerves are on edge, and the inevitable combustion occurs when Jane and Tom enter into a brief sexual relationship. But like Annie Baker, Ms. Gibson and director Daniel Aukin use restraint and a deep sense of who the characters are in order to develop the play as a realistic human drama; we never enter the realm of soap opera as the story unfolds.

What Circle Mirror Transformation and This have in common is a maturity in their writing about the complicated nature of human relationships. Baker and Gibson both eschew the shortcuts of sound bites and sitcom writing that plague far too many plays these days. They are writing about grownups trying to make it through life as best they can.

Their work reminds me of two exceptional plays I saw many years ago: Moonchildren, by Michael Weller, and Gemini, by Albert Innaurato. Both of these were written in the 1970s and had central characters who were in their early 20s. The two playwrights captured perfectly the tone and mood of the characters they portrayed in a way that is rarely seen in the theater, where the young tend to be wise beyond their years, and the adults tend to behave as if they were far younger than their chronological age.

In a similar vein, Circle Mirror Transformation and This, offer us characters who are middle-aged, and who behave accordingly; they are the “Moonchildren” all grown up. I look forward to future opportunities to see work by Baker and Gibson, and I hope that they stay grounded in the drama of human life.

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