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Theatre in Review: The Amateurs (Vineyard Theatre)

Michael Cyril Creighton, Greg Keller, Kyle Beltran. Photo: Carol Rosegg

This business of playwrights kibitzing on their own work is becoming worrisome. Only a couple of weeks ago we had the opening of [Porto], a moderately entertaining comedy about thirtysomething angst that was hijacked by the playwright, Kate Benson, who blitzed the action with stage directions and other commentary. Now comes The Amateurs, about a medieval touring theatre troupe, which gets halted, brusquely, by its author, Jordan Harrison.

If you don't want to hear about this device -- which, I guess, counts as a spoiler -- click on another story, because I don't think it's possible to discuss this play without dealing with this gross example of authorial intrusion. The Amateurs is set in fourteenth-century Europe; Larking is a cranky, driven actor/manager who hectors his company across a blasted, arid landscape, going from town to town in search of fresh audiences, honing their art (such as it is) and hoping to earn the patronage of an unnamed duke. They are perpetually on the move for good reason, as the plague is busy killing off a substantial portion of the continent's population. During the opening scene, an allegorical performance featuring the Seven Deadly Sins is brought to a halt when the actor playing Envy falls to the ground and begins raving and foaming at the mouth.

The members of Larking's troupe are a strikingly modern lot, speaking in a casual twenty-first-century vocabulary and wrestling with very contemporary problems. Larking, who assumes the role of God in the repertory and in their daily lives, hustles and hassles his often-sullen colleagues, urging them to make haste to the duke's castle, where they hope to find sanctuary from infection. But they are a sad and sorry lot: Brom is gay and closeted; his lover was the late Henry, portrayer of Envy, and now Brom isn't looking too healthy himself. Rona is Larking's more-or-less lover; behind her querulous façade she's in a panic because she's pregnant and he's not the father. Hollis is in mourning for Henry, her brother, when not pushing back at Larking's direction and trying to reinvent her roles. Gregory is in charge of backstage matters; the others consider him simple, although it may be more correct to say that he's on the autism spectrum; he only has eyes for Rona. Along the way, the company, sorely in need of another player, picks up The Physic, a medical man who isn't above joining the theatre; he is Jewish, making him even more of an outcast than the others. He and Hollis are soon drawing closer, surreptitiously and not without conflict.

The early scenes, focusing on the troupe's daily life and their performances, benefit from David Zinn's set design, which contrasts a largely empty stage, the deck covered with what looks like black ash, with the troupe's wagon, which opens up to depict gorgeously painted interiors, for example a miniature forest topped by a starry night sky, bracketed by swag curtains. For Noah's Flood, the most popular presentation, there is also a hand-turned scrolling image of animals lining up, two by two, for the Ark. These delightfully painterly touches offer a window on a glorious world of the imagination, and they go a long way toward suggesting the allure of art in hard times. Throughout, Jen Schriever's superb lighting carves the actors out of the darkness, adding its own distinctive touch of theatricality.

Sadly, the design is more compelling than the characters, an itchy, irritable lot who spend their time grousing when not squabbling with each other. (More than once, they are revealed in prayer, seeking divine help, but each of them is possessed of a postmodern consciousness, and none of them really believes in God.) Each of them is defined largely by his or her dominating problem, aside from which there's not much else to learn. They rarely, if ever, take any joy in practicing their art. In truth, they're a small, almost squalid bunch, which may be one reason that, about halfway through, Jordan Harrison enters and announces he's here to have a little chat with the audience.

Of course, he isn't Jordan Harrison -- he is the actor Michael Cyril Creighton, who also plays Gregory, a fact that he cops to right away. Anyway, he reminisces about his early gay sexual experiences and the health teacher who terrorized him with stories about AIDS; he recalls the fate of Gaëtan Dugas, the notorious "patient zero," who, at one time, was believed to have carried AIDS from Africa to the West; and he describes the teacher who was clearly closeted, then came out, only to die of AIDS a few years later. None of this is germane to The Amateurs, he insists; somehow, he was gripped by the image of a small company of actors putting on Noah's Flood -- an elaborate dodge that adds nothing to the evening. He also brings on Quincy Tyler Bernstine, who plays Hollis, to present a speech about her need to find a private rationale for whichever character she plays, illustrating it with a story from a production of A Christmas Carol in which she played Mrs. Cratchit. It's the sort of thing that might make an interesting story in a bar after the play, but here it feels like so much filler, a reach for significance that never really works.

Indeed, it all adds up to so much woolgathering, resulting in one of the more irritating passages currently to be heard on a New York stage. Did Harrison sense that Larking and his actors weren't compelling enough to stand on their own? That their adventures barely add up to anything like a plot? Did he gamble that inserting a bit of autobiography would add resonance to a play sorely lacking in any? Hard to say, but he has gotten tied up in high-concept devices before. Doris to Darlene followed three sets of characters -- from the 1860s, 1960s, and today -- without making anything significant of their juxtaposition. Maple and Vine, about modern couples who move into a 1950s theme world, got bogged down in the increasingly unbelievable details of its premise. Once Marjorie Prime established its admittedly eerie initial situation, there was little to do but repeat it, a process that thinned out the cast considerably.

Oliver Butler's direction can't really find any urgency or drama in these proceedings, but at least he has assembled an exceptionally appealing cast. Thomas Jay Ryan presides over the action with his commanding voice and presence, turning Larking into the kind of frustrated producer figure who is recognizable in the fourteenth and twenty-first centuries. Kyle Beltran is touching as Brom and silkily supercilious as the duke's representative. Bernstine manages to make something sympathetic out of the frequently irritable Hollis. Creighton does very well by the role of Gregory, who is fuzzily defined, and he does his level best as the author. Greg Keller makes the most of a relatively small role as The Physic. Jennifer Kim struggles as Rona, who is defined almost entirely by her bad nature.

In addition to the splendidly imaginative set design and alluring lighting, Jessica Pabst's costumes skillfully range from the actors' plain everyday wear and often-ragtag costumes to a stunning ensemble for the duke's lackey. The Seven Deadly Sins allegory also features Raphael Mishler's striking masks, each a study in a particular expression of woe. (My one complaint about the design is that, for a world defined by pestilence and poverty, it looks remarkably clean.) The makeup and hair designs of Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas include a horrifying example of plague sores. Bray Poor's original music, which is often percussive in nature, is complemented by such effects as flapping bird wings, crackling flames, thunder, and birdsong.

The authorial intrusion seems almost an admission that The Amateurs is a play in search of a reason to be. The story it tells should be steeped in horror, suffering, and the struggle for survival. Instead, what it offers is a postmodern shrug. -- David Barbour

(28 February 2018)

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