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Theatre in Review: Phalaris' Bull: Solving the Riddle of the Great Big World (Theatre Row)

A better title for Steven Friedman's solo show might have been The Consolations of Philosophy, if it hadn't already been taken by both Boethius and Alain de Botton. Like them, Friedman wants you to know that the pursuit of philosophy can supply a reason for living and act as a bulwark against this vale of tears. Whether Friedman, who makes his point by recounting his life as a freelance philosopher, is his own best salesman is, as they say in the philosophy biz, open to question.

Friedman's program bio begins by stating that he was "generally considered by his teachers to be the most gifted student they had ever taught" -- thus establishing that whatever his problems may be, lack of self-esteem isn't one of them. The only child of a family rooted in New York's garment trade, he was raised in Los Angeles. A largely inactive child, he proved to be a regular little Nietzsche when the occasion called for it: His third-grade teacher sent him to a therapist to cure a speech impediment; after a single visit, he says, he cured himself. Later, he recalls, "I arrived at summer camp a guppy but put my mind to sports, and laps, and by the end of summer I had willed myself into a dolphin and could learn springboard diving. And though I'd never win sprints, I did win the award for best athlete my age."

A few years later, he ended up at Harvard, which, Friedman says, only interested him after he was also admitted to Yale, Stanford, and Amherst; for all his professed indifference to his alma mater, he wears a Harvard sweatshirt all night long. (Interestingly, he majored in general studies, surprisingly graduating only cum laude.) By then, the philosophy bug had bitten him. He invokes the name of John Austin, whom he calls the philosopher "most admired" by Harvard faculty. He then recalls talking for 90 minutes straight in a seminar on "advanced problems in epistemology." His professor, who listened "with his head bowed, his eyes lowered" -- he may have been catching forty winks -- compared him to Austin, adding, "Except you express yourself better."

"Extravagant praise," Friedman says, with a shrug. "I've heard it all my life. It's flattering. Builds confidence. But it gets frustrating. And could get unbelievably bizarre."

If you're thinking Oh brother, hold on, because there's plenty more where that came from. Medical school followed, although Friedman dropped out. He took up painting, wrote a play, tried to return to medical school and was refused; he became a tutor, taking on all subjects and grade levels so he will have a reason to read up on almost every subject. Meanwhile, a marriage came and went: "We went to a marriage counselor who said the problem was my mind was more fascinating to me than another person." What a tactful diagnosis!

Deciding that philosophy alone could give him meaning, Friedman read widely and began developing his own approach. Citing Wittgenstein, he decides that the academic life is not for him. This is where his story gets rather vague. Returning to his program bio, we learn, "He has published more than 200 works of philosophy," although a search of the Internet finds none available. A listing for a performance given by him at Harvard claims that he wrote 34 volumes in 2011 alone. His works include Turns to Urns, Heuristic Rings: Of Similar Things, Rotation to Location, and The Seal to Real: On Appeal. This, at least, explains why the text of Phalaris' Bull often slides into the kind of doggerel most often associated with Dr. Seuss. His bio also notes, "His output has included such unconventional forms as the beachbook T Lite Book by the Sea, in 5,000 tea lights next to the Santa Monica Pier in 2009 and the skybook Proving God in Worlds from Even to Odd, over Huntington Beach, California, in 2010." His preferred format is the aphorism, many of which are projected onto the set when the audience enters the theatre: "For loss, there is no consolation. As far as we can say, there is no loss." "You become what you admire." "The future decides if ever it occurred and has the power to reverse it." The last one was a response to a prominent rabbi who had mentioned the Holocaust. Stunned by Friedman's aphorism, he said, "That is what the Messiah is supposed to say." Friedman, always ready with a topper, added, "The world is not complete until we all become Messiahs."

Indeed, the way Friedman talks about it, philosophy endows its acolytes with something close to super powers. He says that he made it through the Northridge earthquake by constructing aphorisms, thus proving that "philosophy is stronger than death." He also claims that he first averred to former colleagues at UCLA the concept that cancer would be best treated by way of a modified cold virus, an idea that was taken up by researchers there and announced 12 years later. In a bit of Oscar night-style humility, he adds, "The story is not about me or credit or claims, but the power of philosophy to produce powerful results." After discovering that he is adopted, he consults a therapist. "After an hour session, she concluded: 1. You're not mentally ill. 2. You've suffered, in your life, a lot of loss. 3. I can't claim to understand your philosophical work, but whatever it is, its effect is stronger than anything I have to offer, so maybe you can come back one day and explain it to me."

Indeed, given such statements as "each of us is the irreducible center of the world," or "Imagine a world in which you need not suffer. This is that world," it's hard not to feel that Friedman is little more than a high-toned peddler of New Age solipsism -- Ayn Rand, Marianne Williamson, and Mary Baker Eddy all rolled up in a single package. Whatever his philosophical ideas are -- he doesn't explore them in depth -- it never seems to occur to him that they are best suited to an upper-middle-class American with no money worries or chronic, intractable problems. If he ever tried to apply his thinking to a world wracked by war, inequality, and climate change, he never mentions it. Indeed, he seems to enjoy romping in his private philosophical Eden: As his father told him, "I can't claim to understand your philosophical writings, but when I hear your words, I see blue skies and fresh fields."

David Schweizer's production is big on visual and aural distractions designed to enliven the windy generalities of Friedman's text. Caleb Wertenbaker's set is a wall outfitted with a number of doors on more than one level, each of which opens to reveal Friedman in a variety of settings, many of them created by Driscoll Otto's projections; other projected images include a variety of quotes from Friedman and other, more legitimate philosophers, and -- once in a while -- giant close-ups of Friedman talking, as if we didn't have enough of that already. Ryan Rumery's sound design largely serves as a delivery system for the New Age-style music that underscores everything; there is no reason for Friedman to be miked in a theatre of this size, but there you are.

Whether you take Friedman as a genuinely deep mind, a classic American eccentric in the Bronson Alcott mode, or a skilled purveyor of snake oil, Phalaris' Bull is a one-of-a-kind experience. For all the rampant egoism on display, it's possible to feel a little sad for him. As he admits, he has sacrificed everything -- including the chance for a wife, family, and medical career -- to his intellectual pursuits. The overall impression given by Phalaris' Bull is of someone who has finally decided, late in life, that the world must know about his extraordinary, if obscure, accomplishments. Come to think of it, an even better title might be Advertisements for Myself. -- David Barbour

(22 December 2015)

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