December 12, 2015

Head Trips: "Night is a Room" and "Lazarus"

Do you have to understand a show in order to like it?  I've been asking myself that question since seeing, back-to-back last week, Night is a Room, a cryptic drama playing in Signature Theatre's small Griffin space through Dec. 20; and Lazarus, the inscrutable David Bowie jukebox musical that is enjoying a nearly sold-out run at New York Theatre Workshop through Jan. 20. I found both to be oddly compelling, even though I don't really know what the hell either is trying to say.

Night is a Room is by Naomi Wallace, who usually writes lyrical plays with feminist themes (click here to read an interview with her). And there are two women in Night is a Room but, violating the Bechdel test that frowns on works in which all conversations between female characters focus on men, they spend all their time talking about the man who is the only other character in the play.

He's an affluent Brit named Marcus. He was given up for adoption as an infant but has lead a charmed life ever since, establishing a satisfying career as a teacher, marrying an even more successful ad exec wife, and raising their daughter who is now out on her own, freeing her still hot-for-each-other parents to indulge in sex whenever and wherever they choose in the elegant home that they're currently remodeling for fun.

As the show opens, Marcus' wife Liana is making arrangements for a surprise 40th birthday present for him: a reunion with his birth mother, a dumpy, almost inarticulate working-class woman named Doré who was forced to give her son up when she was just 15.

By the time the second scene begins, Marcus and Doré have met several times and gotten on so well that the couple has invited her to their home for tea. She arrives with a surprise of her own that hurls the play in a shocking direction and sets the stage for a battle royale between maternal and marital love.

Aided by the supple direction of Bill Rauch, the actors in this odd triangle are excellent. Simultaneously sexy and sensitive, Bill Heck makes it easy to see why each women would want Marcus just for herself while also conveying the anguish of a man caught between those two loves.

Dagmara Dominczyk is particularly good in the early scenes in which Liana strides around the stage in the mistress-of-the-universe outfits in which costumer Clint Ramos has dressed her and treats Doré with the casual condescension that the affluent often show the less fortunate.

But it is the marvelous Ann Dowd, frumpily dressed and unflatteringly made-up, who anchors the show. Her Doré knows that the world thinks uneducated and unattractive people like her don't deserve much and so she is prepared to fight for what she wants, armed with the intensity of her belief in the immutable bond between mother and son (click here to read a profile of the actress).

Despite their impressive work, I'm still not sure what to make of the developments that unspool from Doré's surprise. Much of what follows is melodramatic and some of it borders on the grotesque. 

But Wallace, who is said to have based her play on a real-life story she heard, clearly wants to draw a kind of visceral reaction from her audience. There are intentionally uncomfortable sex scenes and one in which a character pees on the floor.

Wallace gives a hint of her own feelings about the dilemma she's created for her characters with the title of the play. It's taken from a line that the physician-poet William Carlos Williams wrote about a house call to a pregnant woman:

      Night is a room 
      darkened for lovers,
      through the jalousies the sun
      has sent one golden needle!
      I pick the hair from her eyes
      and watch her misery
      with compassion. 

There's poetry in Lazarus too. It comes from the lyrics written by David Bowie, the rock musician who also starred in the 1976 movie based on the novel "The Man Who Fell to Earth." In the movie, Bowie played a space alien who comes to earth seeking water for his drought-stricken planet, calls himself Thomas Jerome Newton, becomes enormously wealthy, falls futilely in love with a woman named Mary Lou and yearns to return to his home planet.

Lazarus is a sequel of sorts but what accounts for the standby ticket line outside the theater is that the score is not only composed by Bowie but the book is by him and Enda Walsh, who won a Tony for his adaptation of the musical Once, and the direction is by the super-trendy Ivo van Hove. In other words, this is the coolest must-see of the season (click here to read how it came together).

But Lazarus is far from being the most lucid show around. The story picks up decades after the movie. Newton is now as rich as  Bill Gates, still mourning the lost relationship with Mary Lou and still yearning to get home. He's also a reclusive drunk but somehow still manages to get entangled with a bunch of new characters.

Those newbies include his assistant Elly who falls hard for him, a slinky psychopath called Valentine who stalks him and a mysterious and unnamed girl who says she can save him. They, along with others— Elly's jealous husband, a dancing geisha, an overly amorous couple—tumble together and apart with the herky-jerkyness of an acid-induced hallucination.

I thought that I might have understood Lazarus better if I'd seen the movie. But my theatergoing buddy Bill watched it before we saw the show and said it didn't help at all. Luckily, van Hove has created captivating  stage images (the video projection by Tal Yarden being particularly spectacular) that kept us leaning in even when we didn't know what they meant.

And the music rocks. There are 18 songs in all, including such favorites as "Changes," "Heroes" and "Life on Mars," plus four new ones written especially for the show. And, of course, fitting the songs into the book is less of a problem when the book isn't all that coherent to begin with. A seven-member onstage band sits behind a Plexiglas wall that buffers the sound just enough so that it's righteously loud without being excruciatingly so. 

Fans may be disappointed to find that Bowie isn't in the show. But Michael C. Hall as Newton, Cristin Milloti as Elly and Michael Esper as Valentine are all in great voice and throw themselves into their performances with passionate abandon. Special kudos to Milloti for doing it in spike heels.

I'm a narrative gal and often get turned off by shows like this one but the commitment to vision here and the sharp execution of it reminded me of my husband K's response to the first van Hove show we saw. "I'm not sure if I can say I liked it," he said about the director's 2010 production of The Little Foxes, which was also done at New York Theatre Workshop,  "But you've got to respect the artistic vision."  And so I do.

1 comment:

Lester Raff said...

Just discovered the blog--great info. My blog is usually not Broadway oriented, but this post happened to be. See how a Midwesterner feels about the theater!

http://www.chicagonow.com/downsize-maybe/2015/12/the-force-was-with-me-in-1968-my-favorite-theater/