Spy Me a River
Undercurrent Incorporated (La MaMa) is a little like sitting in a sound booth with a pair of headphones on, slightly inebriated—as far as you can tell everything you say is wryly amusing. If you’re playwright Jim Neu you mutter coy things such as “I like dark and I like bleak, but not at the same time,” and “Acting like myself wouldn’t be like me.” For the heck of it, you create a scenario where downsized former spies hang around in a Jackie Gleason barroom muttering Groucho Marxisms about the facelessness of postindustrial urban life. All this plays about as good as it sounds, but then the obviousness of Undercurrent‘s satire starts to get in the way of the laughs. Luckily, as a spy/angel, Black-Eyed Susan is archly entertaining, and as a software heiress turned evangelist Mary Shultz shows enough craft that her character starts to mean something. And there’s a lot to be said for ditching irony and mining good old existential ism for humor. But how funny is the idea of a dopey haberdasher becoming an international clothing mogul only to be bilked into seducing a born-again billionaire? How much hilarity can one squeeze out of the banality of aging, post-bohemian yuppies? Give Neu credit for the show’s amiability: the songs—the epitome of the Downtown show tune—are sweetly uplifting, and the spectacle of two actors taking a stage pee as they face the audience holding up a urinal is an all-time-great sight gag. But for all its relentless one-liners, Undercurrent Incorporated is a play still in search of a punch line. —Ed Morales
Russian Toward a Dream
The setting for Cranes (St. Clement’s Church), Dmitry Lipkin’s new play about Russian-Jewish immigrants living in an affluent New Orleans suburb during the 1980s, takes opulence into the realm of pure gaudiness. As designed by Derek McLane, the elaborate domestic spread includes long satin draperies, a black velvet L-shaped couch, and a glass dining-room set that should be in a time capsule from the Reagan years. And what about that leopard carpet trim on the stairs to the billiard room? Say this for New Group director Scott Elliott, he certainly has an eye for the most damning decorative touches.
This dark comedy offers yet another look at the Faustian exchange of one’s cultural soul for the department-store booty of the American dream. House-proud Tanya (Mira Furlan) and her less prosperous but more talented musician friend Sophia (Laura Esterman) attempt a reconciliation, though their different attitudes to ward material success lead to a wrestling match that knocks a decidedly unkosher platter of ham onto the expensively carpeted floor. As the plot suggests, Lipkin has more success in establishing ethnic texture than he does in developing dramatic build. While his pinpoint character observations never fail to entertain, the scenes themselves have an amorphous quality—which perhaps explains the need for the melodramatic ending involving Tanya’s suicidal daughter Lily (Amy Whitehouse).
Though the cast features some first-rate talent, Elliott fails to thread together a credible ensemble. Accents, to say nothing of playing styles, are all over the map. But Furlan provides great comic recompense as Tanya, the Windex-wielding matriarch who surveys her home’s lavish decor with the gloating look of someone who suspects she finally has the upper hand. —Charles McNulty
A Crash Course in Plane Speaking
Scripts don’t come any tauter than this—at least not ready-made. At first glance, the idea of Charlie Victor Romeo—dramatizing the cockpit voice recordings of six major air disasters—seems artificial, perhaps ghoulish. But as painstakingly researched, produced, and directed by Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Irving Gregory at Collective Unconscious, this theatrical documentary turns out to be inspired.
Black-and-white slides projected above a gray cockpit introduce the facts of each flight: name, date, number on board, aviation problem. The generally able troupe of 11 actors becomes the pilots, flight engineers, and flight attendants. Some segments are catastrophically brief: a few routine exchanges, a panic, the horrifyingly rendered crash. Riveting stuff—every time. Most edge-of-the-seat are the longer sequences, where captain and crew battle to right uncontrollable planes through alternating waves of panic and relief. In their terse dialogue we see character vividly revealed in the ultimate crunch. While some swipe at each other in desperation, what stands out is the ultimate in grace under pressure, underlined by the persistent tension between the fliers’cool, technical language (explained by a glossary in the program) and the undercurrent of doom. In the 1989 tape of United Flight 232 to Sioux City, the seasoned captain (poignantly played by Stuart Rudin) fights to land an unresponsive plane, making split-second navigational decisions while offering dark jokes, kindly asides, and an elegiac lament: “Oh, Mama, gonna miss those baseball games.”
Perhaps most responsible for the encompassing aura of terror is Jamie Mereness’s sound design: a symphony of catastrophe orchestrated from the vibration of motors, the frantic beeps of instruments, and the urgent commands of voice alarms—all building to the thunderous crescendo of impact. Prepare for landing. —Francine Russo
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 2, 1999