Doris to Darlene, a cautionary valentine

At its start, Jordan Harrison’s new play feels like an extended set of musical liner notes, exploring the journey of a stirring leitmotif (the Liebestod theme in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde) from 19th Century opera into the bubble gum pop music of a Sixties girl group. Harrison’s characters frequently speak in the third person, explaining their thoughts and actions to the audience, underlining the parallels that connect the play’s three storylines. One of them remarks that great art can make an audience member “lose their lunch”; while clever, the first half of Doris to Darlene noticeably lacks that visceral effect. Scenes between Wagner and mad King Ludwig II play mostly for Bavarian buffoonery, while the story of Doris, the eponymous pop singer, and the producer who makes her a star has little more depth than Dreamgirls.

As an explicator of music’s mystical power, Harrison is no match for Mr. Campani (Tom Nelis), the buttoned-up high school music teacher in the play’s contemporary storyline who once trained to sing opera and remains under its spell. As the story focuses in on Campani and his young would-be protégé, the third person narration drops out of the dialogue and Harrison finds new juice in the familiar dramatic dynamic of homoerotically charged mentorship between teacher and student. Though the Liebestod seems to have been played ad nauseum, Harrison, like any good soprano, has saved something for his finale; in its emotional concluding moments, this intellectually artful play finally sings.

*For more about the play, visit the Playwrights Horizons website.


Queens Boulevard (the musical)

Theater rarely conveys a vivid sense of place; unlike films, plays can’t be shot on location. Which makes it all the more impressive that Signature Theatre Company’s production of Queens Boulevard (the musical) actually feels like a walk down the play’s titular thoroughfare. Sure, Mimi Lien’s busy set is filled with tacky signage, vendors’ carts, and assorted ethnic knick-knacks, while the varied soundtrack mixes bhangra, Asian pop, and an assortment of other tunes from all over the global village. These carefully-observed details, however, combine to create an effect far removed from documentary realism. Davis McCallum’s frequently fun production, performed by a likeable multi-racial ensemble, defies naturalism to capture the essence of New York’s most diverse borough.

Theatrical collagist Mee typically works by reconfiguring classic works and other found sources, here using an Indian dance-drama about a bridegroom’s quest for a mystical flower to give his new wife. Mee and McCallum have gamely set out to imitate the ritual form of non-Western theater, giving precedence to dance, song, and picaresque storytelling. If only there were more ritual and less talk: our protagonist encounters a series of friends and neighbors who discourse with him (often at great length) about the meaning of love and the fabric of community. With its cheek-by-jowl juxtaposition of cultures, Queens offers Mee a brimming metaphor, but the repetitive episodes and speeches eventually succumb to the law of diminishing returns. Imagine walking down the street only to have every Tom, Dick, and Hrishikesh tell you what they think of your marriage; you'd be only too eager to get back home.

*The Signature Theatre Company, as is their wont, is devoting an entire season to the work of one playwright, Charles Mee. You can find out more about him.
**Mee's scripts are all in the public domain. He encourages people to produce and mess around with them.



The politically fraught romance between Alan and Dahna, an American Jew critical of Israeli policies and a Palestinian student activist, provides what amounts to a throughline in Jason Grote’s demanding new play. If the central characters sometimes seem sketchy, that may be deliberate: Grote’s main concern is the way that these lovers’ sense of their own identities is burdened, enveloped, indeed re-written by the stories that surround them. Framing narratives abound, generating one another like a never-ending set of Russian nesting dolls. An intrepid cast of six shift roles continuously, offering a prismatic portrait of Orientalism in its many guises, presided over by Scheherazade, the mother of all storytellers.

Director Ethan McSweeney, aided by Rachel Hauk’s inventive set design and a fluid soundscape provided by Lindsay Jones and DJ Arisa Sound, manages for the most part to make this impossibly complicated script stage-worthy. Though the play’s many truncated tales initially leave the audience (like Scheherazade’s listeners) hungry for closure, dazzling patterns of resonance slowly reveal themselves. Like Flaubert in the casbah of an Egyptian courtesan, Alan and Dahna have politically exoticized one another and their relationship breaks under the stress. The real excitement in 1001, however, comes from watching Grote construct a plot through transhistorical hyperlinks (it’s no wonder that one of his most effective scenes takes place in an Internet chatroom). While steeped in literary tradition, Grote’s structure captures a feeling of political and information vertigo unique to our globalized era. In a theatrical culture increasingly out of touch with contemporary life, that’s a story worth celebrating.

*Befitting its postmodern structure, 1001 has a pretty cool interactive website that riffs on the themes of the play.


new uses

Well, since my blog has fallen into disuse, I've decided to make it a place where I can post some thoughts about my recent theater-going. If you're in New York, you can stop by here to see what I think about some current shows. If you're not, then you can still get a glimpse of the interesting theatrical work going on in the city -- which has not been shut down by the Broadway stagehands strike!