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Theatre in Review: The Oregon Trail / The Great American Drama

Nicole Hill in The Great American Drama. Photo: Hunter Canning. Emily Louise Perkins, Liba Vaynberg in The Oregon Trail. Photo Jeremy Daniel.

Two new Off Broadway productions are exercises in games and gamesmanship. Bekah Brunstetter's The Oregon Trail (Fault Line Theatre Company) is based on the computer game that was a middle school standby for a couple of decades. For those who are either too old or too young to remember, it is a kind of history lesson/role-playing exercise. Players assume the identity of a pioneer, circa 1848, part of a band heading west, and are given a series of choices to make, with the goal of ending up in the Willamette Valley. Brunstetter uses the game as a controlling factor in the life of Jane, her woebegone heroine. Well, she certainly needs something. When we first meet her, she is a dumpy, withdrawn thirteen-year-old, with attitude problems and body odor. Her malaise is not helped by the fact that her older sister, Mary Anne, is dauntingly talented, good-looking, and confident. (Among her accomplishments, she plays the violin.)

But Jane is obsessed with playing The Oregon Trail, the one activity that seems to distract her from her innate sadness. In a clever time-traveling device, the "Omnipotent Voice of the Oregon Trail" begins commenting on her life, and, in a matter of seconds, sends her rocketing into adulthood. She is offered some appealing choices -- including life as a published poet living with a kind, but hot, European husband -- all of which are denied. Instead, following a mediocre college education, Jane ends up depressed, lazy, and largely unemployable, hogging the couch in Mary Anne's apartment, watching reality television, while her irritated sibling works herself to death in an ER. "I think my serotonin's low," Jane says, trying to explain her lassitude, adding, "Mom and Dad said they'd pay for me to start seeing my therapist lady again but she takes everything I say out of context." When Mary Anne wonders why Jane should expect their parents to pay for anything, Jane replies, "Okay, that's -- I'm not going to respond to that."

Depression is not an easy state to dramatize, and, in any case, Jane comes off as a pill -- whiny, narcissistic, a perpetual victim. Making matters worse, the playwright alternates scenes of Jane (called Now Jane) languishing and blaming others for her problems with scenes of her namesake (Then Jane), a probable ancestor, traveling on the Oregon Trail with her father, Clancy, and her sister, Mary Anne, who, yes, plays the violin. This clan -- already suffering from the loss of its mother -- faces devastating misfortunes, including death and dysentery, on the way west. At one point, Brunstetter tries to put Jane's problems in perspective, having Mary Anne arrive home after a really bad day in the ER, saying, "The woman who brought her dead two-year-old into the ER last night after she accidentally ran over him with her second-hand minivan right after her husband was killed overseas, she gets to not get out of bed. Not you." But the fact remains that Jane's depression is presented without any insight and we are led to believe that her sufferings are equal to those of Then Jane, a notion that would be laughable if it weren't so grating.

Under Geordie Broadwater's direction, Liba Vaynberg and Laura Ramadei, as Jane and Mary Anne, respectively, create a plausibly fraught sibling relationship. There's also incisive work from Juan Arturo as a high school soccer star -- and the object of Jane's dreams -- who ages into a total loser -- with a dead-end job and failed marriage -- who slyly uses his sob story to get women into bed. If Emily Louise Perkins (Then Jane), Jimmy King (Clancy), and Ramadei (who also plays the nineteenth-century Mary Anne), can't do much with their stilted dialogue, the fault is hardly theirs. Craig Wesley Divino -- heard, but not seen -- sets the right unctuous note as the voice of the Oregon Trail. Tristan Jeffers' set manages to cram a computer lab, living room, and Conestoga wagon onto the small WP Theater stage and John Eckert's lighting uses subtly contrasting tints to differentiate scenes set in different centuries. Izzy Fields' costumes are apt character creations, none more so than the tarty red dress with black ankle boots that Jane chooses for her first date in who knows when. Chad Raines' sound design includes various television programs, the rush of river water, and Carly Rae Jepsen singing "Call Me Maybe." Brunstetter is a talent to watch, but this Oregon Trail, I'm afraid, leads to a dramatic dead end.

In contrast, The Great American Drama (The New York Neo-Futurists), staged at the new ART Theatre, is a kind of theatre game -- a series of sketches, songs, put-ons, and provocations, all designed in response to an online audience poll. (Among other things, audiences want good seats, diversity, and "to understand the experiences of others.") Connor Sampson, the show's creator, and his company of writer/performers, give their all to fulfill these and many other requests as creatively, and unexpectedly, as possible. The piece is a constant work in progress; at the end of each performance, audiences are invited to note which bits they least enjoyed; non-favorites are jettisoned and replaced with new material.

All of which means the version of The Great American Drama you see this week may differ significantly from the version I experienced last week. Thus, in response to a request for "beautiful acting," Nicole Hill emotes her way through a lightning round of scenes from Chekhov, Ibsen, Inge, and Odets. This is followed by a request noting that "theatre should be critical" -- and the audience is asked to consider whether Hill should be replaced at the next performance by another cast member. A request for "magic" leads to a brief, and shambolic, magic act. At the performance I attended, a request for nudity had Sampson and Hill repeatedly playing rock-paper-scissors, the loser removing another item of clothing, accompanied by personal sexual confessions. Built into the sequence was the proviso that it could be stopped at any time by any audience member. Not until Hill was topless and Sampson was about to remove his shorts did anyone intervene with a cease-and-desist order.

The cast -- including Daniel McCoy and Katy-May Hudson, as well as the charming singer-musician Lijie -- is ever game and always personable, even when working extra hard to ride the audience's nerves with revelations that, we are assured, are one hundred percent true, even if we have no way of knowing. Sampson has a longish monologue, about his life choices and the roads not traveled, that is so beautifully written that it made me want to see one of his full-length plays. But this is a largely shapeless, hit-or-miss evening of comic and/or dramatic bits, and around the two-thirds point (the running time is 90 minutes) my patience ran out. It doesn't help that the piece seems to end several times. Still, the end-of-performance audience poll revealed that ninety percent of those in attendance enjoyed themselves. If you visit The Great American Drama not expecting anything great or dramatic, you may have a passable time.

Sampson co-directed with Greg Taubman, and their contributions are not easy to assess; at least they have assembled a company of performers willing to take all comers. There is no set design; the piece is performed in front of a large screen on which are shown Ross Jernigan's images of the many audience requests, as well as additional imagery, including a blue sky and a graph showing how much red ink the company has amassed during the piece's short run. Justin Cornell's lighting reshapes the stage space as needed. Although it is noticeably lacking in big, boffo laughs, The Great American Drama is probably best enjoyed by comedy club fans, who are more likely to be drawn in by its we'll-try-anything attitude. To my eyes, it's a collection of talent in search of a viable format. -- David Barbour

(1 February 2017)

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