March 13, 2013

Let Down Badly by "Belleville" and "The Flick"

Maybe I’m just in a cranky mood. Because I’ve seen nearly two dozen show so far this calendar year and I can count the ones I’ve liked on one hand, with a few fingers left over.  And as if that weren’t bad enough, a lot of the shows that have disappointed me have been praised by other folks. 

That’s certainly the case with two new shows by two of my favorite playwrights:  Amy Herzog’s Belleville, which opened at the New York Theatre Workshop last week and Annie Baker’s The Flick, which opened at Playwrights Horizons last night.

Charles Isherwood, who reviewed both plays for the New York Times, called Belleville “a quietly devastating play” when he saw the current production during an earlier run at the Yale Repertory Theater.  And he’s almost as tickled by The Flick, which he declares a “moving, beautifully acted and challengingly long new play.”  
Now, I long ago realized that Isherwood and I hew to very different aesthetics so I might have discounted what he thought about the plays but a quick look at StageGrade, the site that aggregates the reviews of the city’s major theater critics, shows that a lot of other voices are cheering on these new works as well.    

And yet, even as I read their reviews, I find myself wishing that the plays had been better or that I’d been able to like them even a tiny bit as much as I’d liked earlier works by each of these playwrights, both of whom were recently nominated for the Susan Smith Blackburn Award, which honors female playwrights.

When I saw her circle mirror transformation back in 2009, Baker grabbed a spot at the top of my leader board for up-and-coming playwrights of either gender and her adaptation of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya was one of the highlights of my 2011-2012 theatergoing season.  
And I wasn’t the only one smitten. The New Yorker recently ran a profile of the 31 year-old playwright (click here to read it) and while my husband K and I were standing in the lobby at Playwrights Horizons waiting to see The Flick, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage walked by, spotted Baker and came in to give her a big sisterly hug.  
Like Baker’s previous plays circle mirror transformation and The Aliens, The Flick is set in a small New England town and focuses on people who are biding their time because they’re unable to figure out how to make better use of it. This time, the action is set in an old movie theater (expertly rendered by David Zinn with tatty rows of seats facing us in the audience) and the biders are a trio of young people who work there.  
As with Baker’s past work, this play is directed by Sam Gold. They’ve been a winning combination in the past but Baker and Gold made some annoying choices for The Flick. 

Right at the beginning, they extend a joke until it wears out its welcome (the end credit music goes on and on and on for almost five minutes) and then they repeat similarly senseless interludes throughout the first act. 

In other scenes, the characters silently sweep the floor for minutes on end. A sequence in which the green-haired Louisa Krause freestyles a dance was amusing but it, too, didn’t know when to stop.
I can’t tell you anything about what happened in the second act because K and I (and a bunch of other people) left at intermission. Doing that is not a move I make lightly; in fact, it’s something I do less than once a year. Maybe all the action (and the lack of it) would have come together if we’d stayed through to the end but the odds seemed to weight heavily against that outcome.  
We did stay for all of Herzog’s Belleville but I found myself scratching my head about what it meant too. The plays that made Herzog’s name—After the Revolution and 4000 Miles—were inspired by the interactions between the extended members of Herzog’s leftist family but Belleville zeroes in on the relationship between a young married couple who’ve moved to the eponymous multi-ethnic neighborhood in Paris so that the husband can do AIDS research for Doctors Without Borders.  

The play opens with the wife Abby coming home in the middle of the day and finding her husband Zack whacking off to a porn video in their bedroom.  A few minutes later their Senegalese landlord shows up and, while Abby is taking a bath, tells Zack that he’s going to have to evict the couple unless they pay the back rent they owe. 
All this and some other stuff—Abby’s decision to quit her antidepressant medication, Zach’s over fondness for weed—is thrown into the pot during the first 10 minutes and director Anne Kauffman keeps it at a high simmer.  But neither she nor Herzog, who according to the Playbill has been working on the play since 2007 and put it through three complete rewrites, makes it clear why we should care about this couple.  
It does help that Abby and Zach are played by the attractive and talented Maria Dizzia and Greg Keller but not enough. Tidbits are doled out over the next hour and 40 minutes that reveal more about the couple and some major secrets are disclosed in the closing scene but they all add up to a picture of an improbable marriage and it’s hard to draw any life lessons from it since few marriages are based on lies to the extent that this one is.
But it’s the final scene that really made me cranky.  It, too, involved people silently cleaning up an untidy space.  And doing it for such a long time that I’m beginning to think that brooms should be banished from all plays, unless they’re directly associated with witches or wizards.


Julie said...

I haven't seen The Flick yet (I'm going on Tuesday), but I wrote the StageGrade for it, so I can tell you that 95% of reviewers felt at *least* a little bit similarly to you regarding the epic moments of silence/repetition.

Like you, I loved circle mirror, but The Aliens wore my patience a bit. I can say this much: if you haven't read her plays, I'd recommend it. Free of Gold's direction (which has its (dis)advantages), the plays feel much more efficient and breezy-- though of course that's not what Baker's going for.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Julie, thanks so much for taking the time to leave this comment. It's been a while since a play has divided audiences as sharply as The Flick has. I'm still trying to decide what to make of the apologia that PH artistic director Tim Sanford released this past weekend and the subsequent debate it's sparked in the chatrooms. So I'd love to know what you think of the show when you see it. In the meantime, I remain eager to see what Baker does next.