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Theatre in Review: The Possibilities/The After-Dinner Joke (PTP/NYC)

Tara Giordano in The After-Dinner Joke. Photo: Stan Barouh.

The people behind PTP/NYC, also known as the Potomac Theatre Project, are not afraid to rush in where other theatre companies fear to tread. Now in its thirty-second season, the troupe is known for its brave -- almost foolhardy -- hot-weather counterprogramming. Even as the Irish Rep pulls out the Ouija board to channel the spirit of Alan Jay Lerner and Roundabout Theatre subdues its subscribers with an evening of brittle wisecracks and Idina Menzel, the Potomac gang, embracing some of the crankiest playwrights alive, devote themselves to critiques of capitalism and fearless investigations of the human bestiary. If you're sitting in the audience at Smokey Joe's Cafe, feeling that old ennui, don't say they haven't given you a choice.

The first of the company's two 2018 presentations -- performed in repertory -- focuses on two of its favorite playwrights. The prolific, contrarian Howard Barker isn't too well known in the US; interestingly, he is also a prophet without honor in his native Britain. The rap on him is that he can't be pigeonholed, either stylistically or politically; more to the point, he can't be fully understood. It's not that his plays are formally challenging or filled with avant-garde techniques; rather, his steady, uncompromising gaze takes in so much that one is at a loss to grasp what he wants to say. Not that Barker cares. "Art is not digestible," he once told the Times. "Rather, it is an irritant to consciousness, like the grain of sand in the oyster's gut." With appetizing metaphors like that, someone you'd want to have a beer with after the show.

Still, his work has its fascinations. As presented by PTP/NYC, The Possibilities is a quartet of brief provocations culled from a collection of ten. They have no discernible link, except for a general desire to unsettle, a goal that is achieved on a sliding scale. By far, the most gripping is "Reasons for the Fall of Emperors," in which Tsar Alexander II, holed up in a tent near the field of battle in the Russo-Turkish war, endures a dark night of the soul. Terrified by the slaughter he has witnessed, he is further plagued by the sounds of his men, in the hands of the enemy, having their throats cut. Having dismissed the officer who attends to him, he engages in conversation with the peasant assigned to polish his boots. He bares himself -- both physically and emotionally -- to this anonymous servant, who is deferential, but hardly thrilled by such attentions. The encounter is tense, mysterious, and faintly erotic, ending in a grisly twist. Jonathan Tindle's Alexander seems to visibly implode and, as the bootblack, Christopher Marshall is the cagiest of sparring partners. Marianne Tatum, whom musical theatre fans will recall from early-eighties appearances in shows like Barnum, is the main attraction in "Only Some Can Take the Strain." Fitted out with a ratty, ill-fitting floor-length pale-green coat (complete with fur trim), a Medusa-style red fright wig, a mad little white hat perched on her head like a dead bird, and a pair of glasses perched on the edge of her nose, she appears to be rehearsing the role of The Madwoman of Chaillot. She is billed as Bookseller although, in fact, she has no intention of parting with the volumes she keeps tucked in a shopping cart. This is a dystopian tale, with echoes of Fahrenheit 451, about a book-burning society, and the Bookseller's encounters with a couple of potential customers lead to unexpected results. It's great to see Tatum again after all this time, and delightful to know that she is also a skilled character actress.

The other two pieces don't land as strongly. "The Unforeseen Consequences of a Patriotic Act" rings subversive changes on the Bible story of Judith, who, as portrayed here, has retired from public life following the killing of Holofernes. Considered a heroine by her fellow countrymen, she looks back on the event with a mixture of arousal and disgust. Kathleen Wise deftly pulls off this high-wire act as Judith, but the piece ends abruptly and violently, and, for once, the director, Richard Romagnoli, seems at a loss. "She Sees the Argument But" is a Margaret Atwood-style vignette about a society where women are required to dress in as sexless a manner as possible. Not much happens, but Wise is sterling as an official quietly scandalized by the idea that anyone would dare to reveal her ankles to the world.

Caryl Churchill's reputation as philosophical and political sourpuss has probably been cemented in recent years with works like Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?, A Number, and Far Away, to say nothing of the recently revived Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, a slog through the English Civil War designed to put a gratifying frown on the grimmest Puritan. But she was once renowned as a wit -- let's not forget the supremely clever Cloud Nine -- and PTP/NYC has had the inspired idea of reviving The After-Dinner Joke, a 1978 television piece that features Churchill in a lively, antic mood.

A free-floating series of jokes, sketches, and (in this production) Monty Python-style animations, The After-Dinner Joke is dedicated to the proposition that, in a capitalist society, charity is an impossibility; even worse, it is a smokescreen designed to obscure the worst excesses of the profit motive. The lead character, a young woman named Selby, throws over her job as personal assistant to the sales manager of a mattress company to work for an Oxfam-style not-for-profit. Selby couldn't be more earnest: Offered a toast by her boss, she announces, "I don't usually like to drink, sir, because the cost of one glass of whisky would buy thirty trees to prevent soil erosion." One imagines that, for her, party invitations are rather thin on the ground.

In her new position, Selby wanders Candide-like through a series of episodes that involve a pie-throwing contest aimed at a trio of politicians (one Liberal, one Labour, and one Conservative -- or, as they are known, "Lib Lab Con"); a pop star whose hit song consists almost entirely of the word "gimme;" a local celebrity who kicks off a charity campaign with a speech in which she urges everyone to "always use the best butter, free-range eggs, double cream, because no one in the Third World is actually going to benefit by you eating margarine;" a woman who has adopted a granny, complete with leprosy, from a catalog ("She sends us the nicest letters telling us how grateful she is and how wonderful we are"); and the managing director of a tea company, who, talking to us about his company's pitiful salaries, says, "It would be ridiculous to expect us to raise their wages to anything approaching yours, because they would then be far better off than their neighbors."

Inevitably, with a piece as scattershot as this, some bits work better than others -- a running gag about a mayor and his obsession with snakes is neither funny or nor particularly on-topic -- but Tara Giordano, as Selby, steps through this minefield of absurdities with effortless skill; she is especially amusing when appalling her superiors with her concepts for print ads, each calculated to make possible donors feel positively suicidal. Tindle is appropriately batty as the mattress king who sets Selby on her journey, and Wise is scathingly right as the charity executive who runs the organization like a multinational, offering gems of wisdom like the following: "It's most important not to come to the end of the financial year with too large a balance or people will think we don't know what to do with the money." The After-Dinner Joke slows down a bit near the end, when Selby finds herself embroiled in a revolution in the Caribbean, but Churchill's faultless ear for official-sounding nonsense carries the day.

Both productions, as is the company's wont, feature a fairly basic scenic design, consisting of a series of swagged drapes and some furniture arranged by Hallie Zieselman. However, Annie Ulrich's costumes for the sixteen-member cast of The After-Dinner Joke effectively evoke all levels of British society at midcentury. Cormac Bluestone's sound design, whether the cartoon-like aural gags of The After-Dinner Joke or the screams of agony in The Possibilities, is effective. Joe Cabrera's lighting is efficient and occasionally striking.

There's no pretending that either of these pieces is a major work, but fans and completists won't want to miss them and there's something inherently valuable about the bracing dose of pessimism they offer in the middle of the theatre's traditional summer silly season. If nothing else, you'll be introduced to some extremely talented actors you probably don't know, and should. -- David Barbour

(19 July 2018)

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