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Theatre in Review: The Legend of the Waitress and the Robber (Dixon Place)

NamPyo Kim, Eunji Lim, Ju Yeon Choi, Yura Noh, Kyongsik Won, James A. Pierce III. Photo: Stefan Hagen

In the department of blink-and-you'll-miss-it is this rather odd entertainment, which closes on Sunday. It's a collaboration between Concrete Temple Theatre, Playfactory Mabangzen, and Yellowbomb Collaboration, in partnership with the Korean Cultural Center NY. If that's not complicated enough for you, there's the project's exotic provenance, which may be the most interesting thing about it: It is taken from the Friedrich Schiller play The Robbers and the Korean novel The Story of Hong Gildong, and playwright Renee Philippi and songwriter Lewis Flinn have converted it into it a didactic musical, à la Brecht and Weill, about the evils of technology.

Like so many exercises in cultural crossbreeding, the show is something of a hothouse bloom, subject to withering under close examination. The plot is set in an Orwellian future ruled by a manufacturer of digital devices; everyone is a slave to his or her smartphone, and books, vinyl records, and radios are banned. The waitress of the title runs a kind of de facto (and illegal) social center for seniors, most of whom are neglected or abused by their families. The robber is the second son of this society's de facto ruler; forced out by his older brother, he falls in with a band of thieves and soon they are separating people from their devices at a remarkable rate. By the time he gets together with the waitress, revolution is in the air.

The piece begins amusingly enough with an opening number in which we are told, "Before we really start/Just make sure your phone is off/Can you make it for an hour?/Do you dare?" But after a while you might feel the itch to check your email because, in its current incarnation, The Legend of the Waitress and the Robber feels like a tentative first draft. Its alternate universe is insufficiently imagined, and the characters and their motivations are transparently thin. It rests entirely on a simple-minded rejection of technology that, however audience-pleasing, doesn't provide a solid foundation for dramatic action. Flinn, composer of the sprightly Lysistrata Jones, seems hemmed in by Mahagonny/Threepenny Opera style, resulting in a score that is repetitious.

The staging, by Philippi and Eric Nightengale, wants more precision; far too much onstage fidgeting is tolerated. The one exception is James A. Pierce III, who, as the older son, moves through the action cleanly and with precision; he also has the standout voice. The design credits -- scenery and costumes only -- are sufficiently basic as to suggest that what we're seeing is a workshop production. Indeed, if the writers want to take this project past its brief current run, they will have to take a hard look at it -- clarifying their intentions, filling it out with more detail and some humor, and lending it more musical variety. Right now, it plays like children's theatre of an especially unsophisticated sort. --David Barbour

(27 May 2022)

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