Truth or Daguerre
The mother, a woman clothed in flowing white, cries into her body mike, “It’s pretty, pretty, pretty, Henry! It’s pretty, pretty, pretty.” Henry, a full-grown man in a couture sailor suit, hisses back, “No, it isn’t pretty, Henry.” Sorry, Henry, but the judges have to side with your mother on this one.
Above all else, Gale Gates et al.’s newest work, 1839, is unabashedly, ineluctably lovely. Allegedly named for the year Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre invented the camera, 1839 manifests a cinematic dreamscape of gods, beasts, nudes, forests, temples, and velvet divans. Remnants of poetry, philosophy, and Greek mythology (Oedipus, primarily) fashion the scanty text.
But while designer-director-writer Michael Counts—whose previous works include The Field of Mars and Tilly Losch—lavishes attention on design elements, he all but ignores story, sense, and import. The music, by Joseph Diebes, crafts euphony and dissonance from drips, chimes, thumps, and static. Sam Velez’s and Manju Shandler’s costumes and puppets delight. The lighting design alone is heartbreaking. And even the stage itself, which spins, slides, and hides like a living creature, fascinates. If only the same could be said for the characters and themes. The actors murmur, scream, lip-synch, and dance expertly, yet communicate little. One is left only with a series of isolated, arresting stills, like a flip book missing far too many pages: Apollo as a woman in a fat suit and ruff, an armadillo that transforms into a naked woman, a larger-than-life nature mort. In the end, 1839 resembles nothing so much as an ill-maintained koi pond: beautiful, murky, shallow. —Alexis Soloski
A Favorable Revue
Enduring love is at best a matter of crossed fingers, according to improvisational actors Charlie Shanian and Shari Simpson. In sketch after sketch during their first-rate revue, Maybe Baby, It’s You (Soho Playhouse), they show couples facing the tests of time and trust and more often than not clearing the hurdles—but only just.
In one sketch that’s so layered an examination of marital nuance it’s a persuasive one-act play, a seemingly well-matched middle-class pair are celebrating their anniversary in a restaurant when the wife confesses she’d hoped for a relationship marked by more passion and risk. To her unconvinced husband’s dismay, she illustrates what she means by standing and singing Perry Como’s “And I Love Her So.” The routine is nearly matched by one in which two film-noir lovers—she has “lips as pouty as a teenager on a family vacation”—come to understand that their compulsive metaphorical byplay is merely an expression of their fears. Yet another duo—divorced after many years—meet at a grandson’s ball game and haltingly realize their feelings still run deep.
Not all the depictions of relentlessly heterosexual partners are up to the high standards the writer-performers have set for themselves. A few early ones—a precocious Brownie browbeats her chemistry partners until a comparable nerd appears; a man has a blind date with Medea—would have benefited from the red pencil, if not the delete button. But Shanian—tall, rubbery of face and limb, goofy or serious on demand—and Simpson—a witty, attractive woman more than willing to sacrifice vanity for art—have a commendable knack for being cynical and sentimental at the same time. They’re helped by Jeremy Dobrish’s clean, inventive direction.
First there was Nichols & May, and then Stiller & Meara, and after them Monteith & Rand. Now there’s Shanian & Simpson. Good. —David Finkle
Letter at Him
In I Love Dick (Mabou Mines), two über-intellectuals, reveling in the oozy tentacles of sexual fixation, are dissected for us with sly, biting intelligence. Leslie Mohn has adapted and directs Chris Kraus’s controversial autobiographical novel, stripping it down to its bare elements: a married couple who conspire in an all-enveloping erotic fantasy about the wife’s desire to fuck an acquaintance named Dick.
Chris, a cusp-of-40 documentary filmmaker (Jan Leslie Harding), confesses to husband Sylvere, an aging professor (George Bartenieff), her attraction to Dick, an English cultural critic. Soon the couple—who have not had sex in years—begin writing letters to Dick, separately and together. They deconstruct his every utterance, imagine his thoughts, then swoon or become enraged in response, until, finally, the couple makes passionate love. While they behave like teenagers, they natter on like avant-garde critics, analyzing their invented drama by criteria psychological, sociological, and aesthetic.
To set up this nouveau epistolary novel as theater is a challenge to Mohn, one she only partially meets. She begins inventively, with a narrator (Stephen Peabody) who introduces the characters with ironic detachment—and tiny figurines—while we hear their voices offstage. But once Chris and Sylvere appear, most of the “action” is reading letters aloud.
No question, the language is the treat—literate, allusive, wickedly funny. Chris describes her nonexperience with Dick as a “conceptual fuck”; Sylvere writes to Dick as a sexually resurrected Charles Bovary. With scary precision, the piece captures the crazed, closed universe of obsession. Harding and Bartenieff also nail the physical intimacy of a long-married couple whose dormant passions begin to sizzle. She’s a jumpy, strung-out bundle of neuroses, while he gives dimension to the sharply knowing, elegiac husband. Still, after 70 minutes of letter writing, these folks not only amuse, touch, and disgust you: They start to bore you, too. —Francine Russo