Centrally Dislocated

Life’s Full of Drama; Too Bad the Stage Isn’t

There's a story of sorts in Abby Mann's Judgment at Nuremberg (Longacre Theatre), an ancient TV play/screenplay dredged up by the National Actors Theatre, but it's the kind of story TV prefers, with the goods and bads neatly predecided, a few hints of ambiguity sketched in to make the material look meaningful, and a jolly feast of moral indignation for all. Unless, that is, you care about matters like history, truth, and morality, or have some slight acquaintance with the billions of pages of data and recollection that make Mann's glib visit to the Nuremberg trials sound like a first-grade book report. John Tillinger's production, flat, fancily multimediated, and slow, does little to enhance Mann's tinhorn notion of debate, or his Perry Mason ideas of courtroom procedure, except in giving some very fine actors a chance to grandstand. George Grizzard, ripely backwoodsy and crisp, invests the hick district-court judge with Lincolnesque dignity; Marthe Keller, as a Nazi general's widow, partners him with fervor and elegance. Best of all is Maximilian Schell, whose great outburst, as the Nazi judge on trial, is one of the finest pieces of high stage rhetoric I've seen in decades. There's good work, too, from Robert Foxworth, Michael Hayden (free of smarminess for once), Patricia Connolly, Peter Francis James, and Michael Mastro, but the evening still seems rather longer than World War II.

Robert Sean Leonard and Richard Easton in The Invention of Love: classic self-absorption
photo: Paul Kolnik
Robert Sean Leonard and Richard Easton in The Invention of Love: classic self-absorption

The home front's a drag, too, in Evan Smith's Servicemen (St. Clement's), chiefly thanks to Sean Mathias's glum, murky New Group production, in which the characters snap and screech charmlessly at each other all evening long, till a lecture on Propertius would seem cheerier. Smith evokes the nightlife of wartime Manhattan convincingly; flickering through the murk are occasional glints that another draft might give his nebulous tidbits of story some narrative substance; currently it seems to be trying out alternate tracks, and to be derailed from both by the production's artsy negativity. A married woman and a gay man cruise the nightspots, picking up unformed uniformed lads. The male half of this undangerous liaison is ultimately driven to enlist himself, either because he rebuffed the love of a sailor who died, or from some arcane sense of obligation to his female pal, or possibly both. A different director might clear matters up. In the uneven cast, Olivia Birkelund and Steven Polito gave hints of being able to do more than snipe and snarl.

The company of England's Theatre de Complicité—which I translate as "Theater of Guilt"—can do a great many things, gymnastic, linguistic, and visual. There are only two things it's incapable of: concision and coherence. It can't make any theatrical gesture without making it five times over and four times as ornate as it needs to be; and it can't tell a simple story without piling on extraneous theoretical crud till the narrative crumbles under the weight of its accrued pretensions. Mnemonic (John Jay College Theatre), an inane but visually appealing show in which two interminable shaggy-dog stories are woven together as an unconvincing illustration of chaos theory, might be a harmless half-hour kiddie show for a natural history museum. Instead it's been bloated into an intermissionless two hours and palmed off as an adult theatergoing experience. Experience is the wrong word, though: After one mildly sly theatrical trick at the opening, it slides into a decorative monotony that suggests the Discovery Channel used as wallpaper. As Catullus said, "Nox est perpetua et una dormienda." Bring a pillow.

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