August 23, 2008

The Knotty Issues of "The Alice Complex"

As much as I love seeing plays, I’m usually delighted when I learn that a show is just one act. Getting out early raises the odds of getting a table for an after-show dinner at a good restaurant. And one act means fewer people climbing over me as they head out to, and return from, a bathroom, cigarette or cell phone break during the intermission.

Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way because producers are beginning to pick up on this growing preference, collapsing old three-act plays into two and commissioning shorter new works in which everything gets wrapped up in one. But, as my grandmother used to say, you’ve got to be careful what you wish for. I’ve seen two very appealing shows this month that suffered from trying to cram a full night’s worth of theater into half an evening’s amount of playing time.

A.R. Gurney’s Buffalo Gal, which I’ve read actually started off as a two-act piece, was whacked down to an anemic hour and forty intermissionless minutes by the time I saw it at Primary Stages. And then just this past week, my pal Bill and I caught The Alice Complex, an intriguing 75-minute piece by the playwright Peter Barr Nickowitz during its final performance in this year’s New York International Fringe Festival.

Inspired by a real life incident in which one of her students held the famous feminist writer and professor Germaine Greer hostage for a few hours back in 2000, The Alice Complex muses about relationships between women, the evolution of feminism and the responsibilities that artists and academics should bear for the works they create. Nickowitz, himself a professor of literature and cultural studies, is a smart writer and his characters sound like real people—better yet, each one sounds like a distinctive person.

Director Bill Oliver, whose program bio indicates more film work than stage experience, brings a nice cinematic flow to the action. And the talented actresses Lisa Banes and Xanthe Elbrick (a Tony-nominee for last year’s ill-fated Coram Boy) work hard, playing not only the main parts of the besieged professor and her disillusioned student, but portraying 9 other women, including influential figures in the main characters’ lives and, in a meta-twist, actors in a play similar to the one we’re watching as well as audience members who’ve seen the show.

The play has emerged as one of the hits of this year’s Fringe festival. But it has too many underdeveloped themes and unresolved storylines to declare it a true accomplishment. Instead The Alice Complex comes off as a promising outline rather than a fully developed work. Of course, this was my first Fringe show and so maybe it’s customary for the festival’s productions to be presented in embryonic form.

Whether that’s true or not, Nickowitz is a talent worth nurturing, which already seems to be happening. His program bio say he’s just been named the Harold Clurman Playwright-in-Residence at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. Good for him and good for us theater lovers too. Any guy who writes roles for women as potentially rich and complex as the ones he attempts here deserves encouragement.

He also deserves the ability to stretch out in longer works and the kind of theatergoers who won’t be rushing off to the next big thing or—chastising note to self—to grab a table at Orso.


Wale said...

Great review! I've been meaning to make the New York Fringe Festival, and you remind me once again that I would have enjoyed attending it! I'll look out for some of these shorter'll be easier to take my friends to them!


jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks for your kind words, Wale. You're right that it might be easier to get your friends to shorter plays but I hope you and they will also give the longer ones a chance so that playwrights will be encouraged to have their full say.