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Theatre in Review: Signature Plays (Pershing Square Signature Center)

Ryan-James Hatanka, Phyllis Sommervile. Photo: Monique Carboni

Few companies have supported such a broad range of playwrights -- from the newest voices to the most established names -- as Signature Theatre. It's not too much to say that, in its early years, Signature helped to revive the fortunes of such mid- or late-career playwrights as Edward Albee, María Irene Fornés, and Adrienne Kennedy. Now the company has assembled three one-acts by this trio, offering audiences a kind of sampler of the avant-garde from the last several decades, as a tribute to these distinctive voices; however, the results are distinctly mixed.

Albee's The Sandbox (1959), an absurdist, etched-in-acid portrait of family life set on a seaside holiday, starring Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma, who is confined to the location of the title, plus The Young Man, a slice of beefcake in a bathing suit who turns out to be the Angel of Death. It's a brief nuclear explosion of disgust at mid-century hypocrisy, and already the author's talent for pitiless comedy is fully on display. Grandma, a doddering specimen if ever there was one, recalls how Mommy and Daddy took her off the farm, "which was decent of them...and moved me into the big townhouse with them...fixed a nice place for me under the stove...gave me an army blanket...and my own dish...my very own dish!" (The ellipses are Albee's.) As an expression of Albee Family Values, it makes for a piquant experience, but this very short piece is over before you know it. A 2008 revival at the Cherry Lane Theatre proved that The Sandbox works best as a curtain-raiser for The American Dream, a longer piece that reunites all four characters. Still, with the luxury casting of Alison Fraser (Mommy), Frank Wood (Daddy), and Phyllis Somerville (Grandma), this is a very well-stocked Sandbox. Brandon Wolcott's original music is nicely delivered by the cellist Melody Giron.

Next up is Fornés' Drowning, one of the more impenetrable works by a writer who has often prized a mandarin attitude toward the audience. I saw Drowning at Signature in 1999 and couldn't make heads or tails of it; the ensuing years have done nothing to illuminate it. The script calls for it to take place in a café in Europe, although, in Mimi Lien's set design, it looks more like a cafeteria in some dreary institution, such as a prison or mental hospital. The actors Mikéah Ernest Jennings, Sahr Ngaujah, and Wood are gotten up in fat suits, with giant bullet heads. Two of them, named Pea and Roe, discuss a woman whose photo they see in a newspaper. They speak in a slow, deeply pained manner, suggestive of mental impairment or perhaps a stroke. The piece unfolds over time, but the theme -- obsession with the woman's image -- remains the same. As Pea says, in a way that is both elongated and full of longing, "She is close to me as only an animal can be. And as unfathomable. Looking into her eyes is so quiet -- like sleep, like a bed. And she, she is wild like a tiger. She smells like a lion, and she claws like a lion, and yet, in her eyes, she is quiet like a fish." Turning to himself, he says, "I am not a person. I am a bat. Look at my skin, see? It is too smooth and too dark. Touch it. This is not like human skin. Look at my nails. Press them. See how they turn white? That's not human. Look at that. My anus is violet. Put your finger on it. It is rough." You'll either find this sort of thing to be deeply poetic or interminable; I side with the latter.

One problem with Lien's design is the intention of providing all three plays with fully realized sets. The first half consists of The Sandbox and Drowning, which necessitates a ten-minute pause that leaves the audience in limbo, watching an actor bop to various styles of pop music coming from a portable radio. This is mystifying, an inadequate diversion, to say the least, but, given the brevity of the first two plays, a full intermission must have been seemed undesirable. Lien's abstract, canary-yellow rendering of a beach for The Sandbox is a witty contribution, but Drowning could have been done on a much simpler set, or with no set at all. This makes an already problematic first half seem even more lumbering.

On the other hand, Lien's design adds immeasurably to Funnyhouse of a Negro, Adrienne Kennedy's 1969 investigation of black self-hatred. Actually, the title is misleading: "chamber of horrors" would be more like it. The protagonist, Sarah, is a light-skinned black woman whose self-image has been hideously twisted by the expectations of a racist society. Discussing her father, she says, "How dare he enter the castle, he who is the darkest of them all, the darkest one? My mother looked like a white woman, her hair as straight as any white woman's. And at least I am yellow, but he is black, the blackest one of them all. I hoped he was dead. Yet he still comes through the jungle to find me." These words, and others like them, are spoken again and again, refracted through the voices of Queen Victoria, the Duchess of Hapsburg, Patrice Lumumba, and Jesus. Black actors appear in whiteface. A royal bed for the queen appears and disappears. The all-black scenic environment, the walls covered with barely discernable classical details, is lit by Mark Barton as if it were a haunted house. And so it is -- by Sarah, who is profoundly alienated from the color of her skin. "I long to become an even more pallid Negro than I am now; pallid like Negroes on the cover of American Negro magazines, soulless, educated, and irreligious." Meanwhile, her landlady sneers, "Ever since her father hanged himself in a Harlem hotel when Patrice Lumumba was murdered she hides herself in her room....She's suffering till her hair falls out. But then she always did hide herself in that room with the walls of books and her statue. I always did know she thought she was somebody else, a queen or something."

A poisoned cocktail distilled from the hatred absorbed from living in a hostile world, Funnyhouse of a Negro more than lives up to its bizarre gothic atmosphere, making itself the only one of the three plays on display to feel thoroughly contemporary. Lila Neugebauer, who directs all three pieces, shows her command of the material here, aided by Crystal Dickinson, whose eerie poise makes Sarah's disgust for her own skin all the more scalding. Fraser is also memorable as the landlady, dressed in an orange '60s-chic ensemble, and treating Sarah's appalling history as the most delicious gossip. Kaye Voyce has supplied a wide array of costumes, from Victorian court gowns to an iconic crown-of-thorns look for Christ.

If the first half of Signature Plays offers less than one has any right to expect, the opportunity to see a first-class production of Kennedy's play is not to be missed. Even when it isn't perfectly judged, this program is proof positive of Signature's devotion to its playwrights. This is one theatre company that knows its mission and sticks to it. -- David Barbour

(2 June 2016)

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