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Theatre in Review: New York Animals (Bedlam/New Ohio Theatre)

Jo Lampert, Debra Barsha. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

There are eight million stories in the naked city, and New York Animals can't manage to decently dramatize even one of them. The playwright, Steven Sater, has imagined a constellation of New Yorkers from various walks of life who are connected by business dealings, affinity, or sheer chance, and he trots them out in various combinations for a series of vignettes. For example, there's Doug, a businessman who can't pay his bills; this frustrates Mr. Earl, one of his vendors, who uncomfortably makes an attempt at dunning him. Doug is married to Patsy, who just had a baby; he also has a tough-talking secretary named Anita. Mr. Earl, who is apparently grieving for his late wife, every day eats the same meal -- baked chicken -- in the same diner. Today, however, Sylvie, the waitress, informs him that the kitchen has run out of that particular dish. Mr. Earl is so upset that Sylvie fills his order by going to the restaurant next door; still, he swears he can never return. Meanwhile, Sylvie waits on Anita, who interrogates her about the contents and prices of several offerings on the menu. Patsy rushes her ailing baby to the hospital; because the neglectful Doug is running around in Florida, she is accompanied by Adam, a gay friend. Adam has proposed to his friend Iris because neither of them is getting anywhere with men. Iris gets serious about Adam's offer, which causes him to retreat. Iris, by the way, was in a cab when it hit the difficult, needy, middle-aged Rita. Rita is planning a lawsuit against the cab driver; she also has a bone to pick with...Doug.

This is only one example of the many personal tangles concocted by Sater -- so many that none gets anything more than the most cursory treatment. As a homeless man, wandering around the emergency room, notes, "It's like the guy said, 'Only connect.'" But if the playwright busily connects the dots between his characters, he gives us precious little reason to care about what happens to them. They turn up in brief, undernourished episodes, then vanish, usually returning much later, often as supporting players in someone else's story. Providing the glue for these dramatic bits and bobs is a series of haunting original pop tunes -- music by Burt Bacharach, no less, and lyrics by Sater -- delivered by Jo Lampert with a confidence that is elsewhere lacking in the production. The songs are spiky with New York attitude and rife with regret, but they may as well be radio waves from Mars for all their relevance to the play that surrounds them.

I'm not the first to suggest that New York Animals, which is set in 1995, may have been inspired by the Robert Altman film Short Cuts, which consists of a series of interconnecting narratives set in Los Angeles and linked by a series of jazz performances by Annie Ross. I would like to think that this is an old script that Sater exhumed and paired with new songs by him and Bacharach, with whom he has recently been writing musicals. This theory is challenged by the fact that new scenes were being inserted into the press performances, requiring the use of a prompter.

But even a more polished, confident production, like the one I saw a few days later, can do little about the fact that the characters constitute the thinnest of clich├ęs. Patsy is an angry housewife. Adam and Iris are whining singletons. (Adam, describing his life of woe, says, "Can you imagine being gay and looking 36?") Sylvie, the waitress, comes across eerily like Nancy Walker in those old Bounty commercials. Very occasionally, an episode ignites, such as when Adam feels menaced by phone calls from a neighbor -- a total stranger -- who keeps tabs on him. More often, they are tasteless and exploitative, as in a narrative line about a young woman who keeps miscarrying. And how can it be that, in a play about New Yorkers in all their neurotic glory, there isn't a single funny line?

Under Eric Tucker's uneven direction, the actors do their best as they leap from character to character, but individual results vary. Of them, Susannah Millonzi most comfortably inhabits the roles of Patsy, Anita, Iris, and two others. The rest have to take pot luck. Edmund Lewis is creepy as Adam's stalker and awkward as the Mexican housekeeper fired by Patsy. Tucker is solid as Adam, but fidgety and irritating as Doug. Lampert's vocals are often alluring, but some of the lyrics are lost in Jeanne Wu's occasionally muddy sound design. (The actors sometimes use floor mics, most often when they are supposedly on the phone, a decision that feels arbitrary and unnecessary, given the size of the theatre.)

For the purposes of this production, the New Ohio Theatre has been turned into a cabaret by the set designer John McDermott, with patrons seated at little round tables adorned with lamps, arranged around the piano where Debra Barsha acts as musical director. An array of lanterns in various designs hangs from the ceiling. Les Dickert's lighting casts a warm pink glow before the play begins and capably reshapes the spaces as needed later on. Nikki Delhomme's costumes are well-suited to the characters.

Basically, New York Animals is a cab ride to nowhere, a trip filled with talkative bores who can't stop advertising their uninteresting problems. Sater has been acclaimed for his work on Spring Awakening, the musical, although as a librettist he basically cut down the Frank Wedekind original to make room for songs. Although his lyrics have a certain moody, urban ambiance, he would seem to have a long, long way to go as a playwright. -- David Barbour

(7 December 2015)

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