February 25, 2009

Intar Cuts Two Ways at the Cherry Lane

When I told my friend Ellie I was going to see a show at the Cherry Lane Theatre she grinned. “That,” said Ellie, a one-time actress, “is the first theater in New York where I ever worked.”

She’s far from the only one who can claim that. The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and some friends in the pioneering Provincetown Players converted an old box factory in the Village into the Cherry Lane back in 1924 and the theater has been a haven for experimental and emerging artists ever since. Early works by Elmer Rice, Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee, Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson were performed there. Actors like Colleen Dewhurst, James Earl Jones, Frank Langella, Claudia Shear and Kiki & Herb honed their craft there. And this week, INTAR Theatre, which found itself homeless when the Zipper Factory Theater closed last month, debuted a double bill of one acts at the Cherry Lane.

INTAR is an acronym for International Arts Relations and for the past four decades the company has devoted itself to developing Latino theater artists. Despite its long existence, I had never seen an INTAR production even though a friend who knew Eduardo Machado, the company’s artistic director and leading playwright, had urged me to check out his work.

News stories about the Zipper closing and the last minute rescue by the Cherry Lane gave me the final push I needed to see the company and my always-up-for-a-theatrical-adventure buddy Bill and I head down to the Village to catch its two latest offerings. The first, In Paradise, is by the Cuban-born Machado and the second, She Plundered Him, is by Nick Norman, an Argentine-Brit who just graduated from Columbia University’s MFA playwriting program where he studied with Machado.

Both plays deal with older women who become infatuated with younger men. In Paradise further complicates things by making the man bisexual. Machado, who is 55 and openly gay, often bases his plays on his life and he seems to have borrowed the plot for this one from his marriage to a white woman who was twice his age when he wed her at 19. Her death in 2007 may have spurred him to write this eulogy for their relationship. Not much goes on in the play and there’s far too much exposition (the wife is constantly telling the husband things that he’d obviously already know) but Leslie Lyles and
Ed Vassallo do a nice job portraying a couple who love one another even when each knows that love isn’t always enough.

There may be too much love—and lust—in Norman’s She Plundered Him. The play is set in the family home of a mentally unstable writer, his sex-starved wife and their duplicitous grown son. The home is in Dorset, the county on the coast of the English Channel, and so all three actors affect British accents and the son, for some unexplained reason, wears jodhpurs. In a nod to colorblind casting, the son is played by the young Asian-American actor James Chen, while his parents are played by Caucasians Mark Elliot Wilson and Lyles, performing double duty. In a nod to traditional dramaturgy, the play centers around yet another long night’s journey into dysfunction.

The Cherry Lane has always been an intimate theater and it has been configured into a mini-theater-in-the-round, with about 25 seats on each side for this production, which runs less than 90 minutes, including a scene change between the two plays. Perhaps to create an illusion of more space, the walls, ceiling and floor have been mirrored so you can see your fellow audience members while you watch the play. In my sight line sat a pregnant woman who kept frowning and rubbing her belly as though she were trying to protect her unborn child from the horrors the members of the onstage families were inflicting on one another.

I frowned a bit too as I detected a streak of misogyny running through both plays. Women over 40, they seem to suggest, should just give up the whole sex thing and be maternal. I might have been just as put out by some of the histrionics these plays at times displayed. Instead, I started wondering what I might have thought if I’d had the chance to be in the Cherry Lane when unsettling works by O’Neill, Albee or Shepard first played there. The Cherry Lane has always offered a home for audaciousness. So although I may have some reservations about the Intar plays, it was good to see them there.


Mondschein said...

Was this in the studio space at CLT? I'm having a hard time imagining how they converted the bigger proscenium house to in-the-round.

BTW, the Cherry Lane studio was my first NY stage appearance, too!

jan@broadwayandme said...

Yes, I think it must have been the studio space. You should go for old times' sake.