June 13, 2015

"Why "10 out of 12" Didn't Score With Me

Anne Washburn clearly loves the theater. Her 2013 play Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play was an ode to theater's power to crate order out of chaos. I'll confess that I was lukewarm about it (click here to read my review) but most critics and theater insiders loved it. And anticipation has been so high for her new work 10 out of 12, which opened at Soho Rep this week, that people start queuing up for the cancellation line 90 minutes before the show begins.

The title is taken from the Actors’ Equity rule that limits actors to working no more than 10 hours in a 12-hour period. And the play takes place during a technical rehearsal a few days before a new show is scheduled to open. 

Tech, as it’s called, is the notoriously tedious time when the cast and the crew nail down sound and lighting cues. Washburn, the author of a dozen plays that have been produced across the country, spent the lulls in her tech time taking notes and she and her frequent collaborator director Les Waters have turned them into this meta narrative that attempts to recreate the tech experience (click here to read a Q&A on how they did it).

The verisimilitude is taken seriously. Each audience member is given a head set, over which nearly a quarter of the dialog is spoken as the faux crew communicate with one another just as real ones do. It’s fun at first but a lot of what’s said is, as those communications can be, banal: arcane directions are repeated over and over; people describe what they’re having for lunch.

In the same vein, the actors playing the crew members move in and out of the audience, just as their real-life counterparts would when working on a show. And when they move props, including an unfinished wall, around the stage, it’s impossible to tell the real stagehands from the pretend ones.

I usually take it as a good sign whenever I see that a show has cast Quincy Tyler Bernstine, who here plays the stage manager. And, as always, she’s great, right down to the bearing-the-weight-of-the-world slump of her shoulders. 

The other actors are just as good. But it was hard to know if those of us watcing were supposed to turn around and look at them as they moved out of the traditional playing space. And so much of the time, they were just disembodied voices for me.

The show they’re supposedly working on seems to be a hapless mashup of an antebellum melodrama (complete with actresses in hoop skirts) and a modern-day ghost story (glow in the dark skeletal figures make frequent appearances).

The play-within-a-play’s cast includes an anxious ingĂ©nue, a Hollywood hunk looking for some stage cred and a cranky method actor who gets on everyone's nerves by improvising his lines and making grandiloquent declarations about the theater that I couldn’t tell if Washburn wanted me to laugh at or take seriously.

Either way, the tech rehearsal’s stop-and-go conceit saps the momentum out of that storyline. It also pales in comparison to An Octoroon, another meta meditation on theater that played in the same space last spring (click here for my review of that one).

Some of the mainstream critics have found 10 out of 12 to be an amusing recreation of the tech experience but the show reminded me of one of those old Andy Warhol films in which a subject like boredom was conveyed by being as boring as hell. 

I get that Washburn wants to celebrate the love that everyone from the lowliest stagehand to the blowhardiest headliner has for the theater. I just wish she had gotten to that point in a less tiresome way. And the oddly cathartic final scene of 10 out of 12 doesn't make up for the two hours and 15 minutes that preceded it.

The audience the night before the show opened was filled with family and friends of people involved in the show (including Lisa Kron, still beaming from her Tony win for Fun Home, and her wife the equally gifted playwright Madeline George) but even that supportive group gave only token applause when the show broke for intermission.

The reviews (click here to read some of them) suggest that this may be a show that insiders who have gone through tech rehearsals will like in the way that people who’ve suffered through an ordeal enjoy getting together to pat themselves on the back for having survived it. But I think 10 out of 12 is going to leave regular theatergoers wondering what the fuss is all about.

Still, I would love to have seen the real tech rehearsals for this show. Or maybe not.

No comments: