Director Ian Hill’s staging of William W. Pratt’s “temperance drama,” Ten Nights in a Bar Room (Nada), couldn’t be more user friendly. Not only are the stage directions read aloud throughout, but the cast of characters, synopsis of incidents, lists of scenes and properties, as well as the play’s ISBN code are announced over microphone at the top. In addition, captions are provided when Sample Switchel (Tim Cusick), the good-natured Irish drunk, utters something unintelligible in his thick brogue, or when words like “niggardly” are used with some obvious confusion about their meaning.
Clearly, Hill wants to maximize our enjoyment of this long-lost prohibitionist screed. The plot revolves around the Sickle and Sheaf Inn, a drinking establishment owned and operated by the enterprising Simon Slade (Ken Simon). Mr. Romaine (Peter Brown), a visiting philanthropist and teetotaler, serves as a kind of narrator, taking us through the promising early days of the business to its inevitable transformation into a hotbed of intoxication, violence, and melodramatic incident. Strange banging, however, routinely interrupts the increasingly tear-jerking action, as an army of ghouls tries to gain entrance first through the front door and then, more worryingly, from the basement.
Fortunately the actors are well armed, even if the violence culminates in a splattering of blood that left me (accidentally, according to the apologetic stage manager) covered in a sticky red substance. No matter— Hill’s fiendishly comic imagination is worth a trip to the laundromat. His point, enacted with oddball
theatrical gusto, is a reminder of how drama at its self-important worst is really nothing more than a distraction from the true, subterranean horror of our lives — Charles McNulty
Writer-director Richard Maxwell has suggested in the past that his ideal piece of theater is a clunky high school play. Maxwell sees a truth and humor in bad theater, attributes he brings to his directing style without slipping into arty condescension. Cowboys & Indians (Soho Rep), his new collaboration with frequent Wooster Group associate Jim Strahs, gets him close to his ideal, perhaps, but is less satisfying than some of his previous efforts.
Cowboys & Indians, the story of hapless explorer Francis Parkman and his cousin Quincy Adams Shaw, who journeyed to the Oregon prairie in 1840 to “study” the Indians, seems tailor-made for the two artists: Strahs for his attraction to would-be heroes, Maxwell for his North Dakota roots. In the first hour, Parkman and Shaw procure money from Parkman’s father for the journey, Parkman bids adieu to his sweetheart, then in St. Louis they put together a motley team of explorers. In the second, they take a hike through the Oregon trail and most of the team abandon them.
The look of the production is fully realized and gorgeous. Bridget S. Markov does triple duty on set, costumes, and lights, making each of Maxwell’s static tableaux resemble a slightly dusty natural history museum diorama. The simple country song fragments Maxwell contributes are affecting and sweet. But Maxwell’s habit of stripping emotion from his actors’ palettes doesn’t work to his advantage in this case, because the script emphasizes the written word rather than the quirks of speech he used as a brilliant way into character in his last play, House. David Cote, as Parkman’s faithful navigator, struggles out of the box by underplaying rather than zombifying his character, but it reads as insubordination. The big risk with faking amateurism is that if it doesn’t seem really bad, it’s not good enough. — James Hannaham
Premium Bob will never make it as Mounties; they don’t always get their man. This dynamic Downtown duo, composed of Paul Boocock and David Latham, misfire in their new show, Manhunt (Kaufman Theater). Playing out like an episode of America’s Most Wanted filmed in a far stranger universe, Manhunt sends über-detectives Premium Bob on the trail of Dobie McDobie, “America’s most reclusive man.” The Bobs delve deep into Dobie’s history and psychology: his gender confusion, his flirtation with bad poetry, his slide into drunkenness, his career as a temp, and his turns as a successful figure skater and gymnast.
Latham and Boocock, clad in matching brown shirts and very shiny shoes, perform with aplomb. They stage an extended dance and lip-synch to George Michael’s “Freedom,” they execute a triple axel, they navigate their way through a morass of special effects, they mug and morph and cavort with precision. Trouble is, while the flesh is willing, the material is weak. Manhunt proves high on style, but low on sense and import. The scraps of plot fail to coalesce, as does the tone of the show. A good portion of the script hints at thoughtful media satire, but too often the Bobs rely on striking the poses of an adolescent male’s superspy fantasy. Furthermore, the pair engages in some discomfiting stereotypes. Yes, lisps, leers, and limp wrists may still signify “gay,” but these qualities don’t signify “funny.”
Though certain scenes prove delightful, Manhunt as a whole succeeds neither as intelligent pop-culture raillery nor as jejune yukfest. Yet the Bobs still emerge as talented comedians. Let’s hope that on their next impossible mission they track down a better story. — Alexis Soloski