November 3, 2010

"In the Wake" Has a Bad Case of ADD

Plays dealing with current events and major political issues come few and far between these days and so I’m usually delighted to see one.  But Lisa Kron’s new play In the Wake pissed me off.  

The Bush-Gore election mess (complete with its infamous hanging chads), the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina and the debate over same-six marriage all show up in this play which opened at the Public Theater on Monday night (and I mean "show up" literally as well as figuratively; Alexander V. Nichols' video projections self-consciously flash images of those events on a screen that borders the proscenium).  But In the Wake's politics are little more than window dressing for a relationship drama about a woman who finds herself in love with two people.  

The really funny thing is that the love stories, stripped of all the folderol, might have made a damn good play. As is, Kron, who has previously written autobiographical works in which she’s taken on the main role, devotes so much time to writing numbing political speeches for In the Wake that she apparently ran out of energy before she could create characters who feel like real people or to make what they do seem dramatic.  Like a kid with attention-deficit  disorder, her play hops all over the place but can't focus on what's important.

What further annoyed me is that director Leigh Silverman has assembled—but misused—a cast that includes some of the best actors working in the city.  I’m holding both her and Kron responsible for the fact that none of them perform up to their usual stellar standard.

Marin Ireland is a certified New York theater MVP who could play a paper bag and make it seem interesting but even her considerable talents are challenged here. She plays Ellen, a motor-mouth writer and activist who lives in cozy domesticity with her laid-back schoolteacher boyfriend Danny until she meets and falls for a filmmaker named Amy.  Both lovers adore Ellen and she doesn't want to give up either of them.  There’s inherent drama in that situation but it gets lost in all the superfluous rhetoric about what a bad guy George Bush is.

Ireland usually plays dour types and so she probably welcomed the chance to play the voluble Ellen (click here to read a piece about her in the Arts section of the Wall Street Journal).  But the character is so shallow and self-absorbed that I never got why either Amy or Danny would want to spend more than five minutes in the same room with her.

Michael Chernus, on whom I confess I have an inexplicable crush that grows each time I see him on stage, manages to bring a few moments of emotional truth to Danny. But Deidre O’Connell, the buoyant heart of one of last season’s best plays, circle mirror transformation, is condemned to one-note grimness as an even more ardent activist. 

I get that Kron is attempting to draw an analogy between Ellen’s myopia and that of the country as a whole (click here to read an interview she gave Time Out New York). It’s hard to miss that point since in one soliloquy after another, Ellen stands center stage and tells the audience that she has blind spots. That's obvous.  But I would have preferred a little less tell and a lot more show. 

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