Theatergoers get such a high from seeing a play with a star they like (lately, Robin Williams, Harvey Fierstein, or Austin Pendleton) that work done by emerging talents or those with supporting credits can get lost in a conversation—or in reviews (including my own). I’ve been feeling guilty for not mentioning Jennifer Van Dyck’s portrayal of a boy learning how to play baseball in The Divine Sister at the Soho Playhouse because it’s her smaller part in the show (the larger one, a woman of wealth, is terrific, too)—but she keeps this little kid so alive, so humorous, and specific, moment by moment, that it needs to be highlighted. You’ll like Jonathan Walker’s chipper ex-boyfriend as well as Amy Rutberg’s repressed postulant—even if you dare disagree with Reverend Mother (Charles Busch) and finally think that she needs a lot more than mere confidence-building.
There are plenty of other performances worth paying attention to around town at the moment, too. One is Scott Greer as Faustus–at New York CIty Center Stage II–in the Pearl Theatre Company’s production of Wittenberg—he’s an old hand from the Philadelphia theatre scene who’s got girth! (he’s also sung with the Philadelphia Orchestra and worked at the Walnut Street Theatre among many others). He’ll remind you of an Orson Welles or Jim Brochu (OK, OK, maybe Harvey Fierstein, too), and he has that same kind of mad boy-genius quality but with heart also (remember, Greer has to lead the audience through Renaissance thought every night concerning hell, the Bible’s position on purgatory, the difference between theology and philosophy, and the role of the Catholic church vs. free will—at one point he’s even dressed up in a devil suit. Writer David Davalos’s script is cute, funny, certainly knowledgeable, and slightly coarse—it goes down easy yet I resist calling it a play. Wittenberg is more of the assemblage a popular college professor might put together to get undergrads through finals with passing grades—there’s a Tom Lehrer, “Let’s learn all the elements” quality to it. Huge emotional confrontations and blowouts it has not, even though we’re theoretically watching the battle for Hamlet’s heart, mind, and soul by Dr. Faustus, Martin Luther, and an unseen Copernicus. The tone is not John Osborne (although we do get to see Luther’s constipation cured); instead it’s written for the attention span of the freshman class with quotes and allusions, beer, bong, caffeine, and Christian jokes (what other wacky pre-Enlightenment lampoons have you seen lately?). At one point, despite the work’s anti-sophisticate, anti-New York feel, it does make a point very similar to one being made on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre where Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is playing (“God damns us to sin and then damns us for sinning”). Is that a Catholic observation? A Protestant, Scientific or Existential one? Maybe it’s merely universal—an unexpected locus and overlap in two very different kinds of works, divining societal common ground. Obie winner Sean McNall, Chris Mixon, and Joey Parsons also star; the direction is by J. R. Sullivan. Wittenberg is for those who miss the all-nighters.
Of course, if you want to watch primal acting, it’s off to P.S. 122 for the beginning of the Amoralists’ fifth season and Bring Us the Head of Your Daughter. It’s a smaller show than what is typical for writer and director (and actor) Derek Ahonen—here he starts with a writhing woman (Mara Lileas) and a Nina Simone soundtrack. You might not know the four actors he’s working with this time around (and, yes, you’ll miss James Kautz, Matthew Pilieci, Sarah Lemp, Nick Lawson, Mandy Nicole Moore, the whole crowd); the program, nevertheless, is still very much anti-literary, anti-academic, in your face, for your senses, for this moment of theatre you and the cast are inhabiting. Ahonen gives the actors room—part of the reason you won’t really mind if the script doesn’t quite add up is because it allows more suspense, bigger moments, better acting opportunities. Sarah Roy was clearly on the night I saw the play, very specific, individual moments from eating an apple to reprehending her lesbian mother(s). Lileas shows us the kind of Southern woman emotionally masked because there is so much underneath it. Anna Stromberg is the messy drunk, addicted immediately to virtually everything, anything, and anybody—and Jordan Tisdale evolves from outsider to maybe-rectifier during the evening. You know, you hear about how people wanted to work with Kazan, with the Living Theater—the Amoralists have that same kind of hip, underground vibe. One of the lines in Bring Us the Head of Your Daughter is that this country is “tacky but fun”—in Ahonen’s hands it also allows for virtually endless theatrical collisions. His America is a place to live out loud and make a lot of really stupid mistakes—fortunately, he forgives them, too (and means it!).
© 2011 by Bob Shuman
Wittenberg photo © by Sam Hough.
Bring Us the Head of Your Daughter photo by Larry Cobra.