This Is My Youth
Forget the human genome; the greater mystery is the corporeal wizardry of Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Capable of transforming into any creature (human or otherwise), the actor slips into alternative realities with the subtle ease of a jazz chord—a miracle in itself given his imposing physical stature. Blessed with an agile, honeyed voice and a clarity about our secret purposes, he’s previously demonstrated his awesome range with virtuosic turns in Shakespeare, August Wilson, and David Mamet. His solo performance memoir, Lackawanna Blues (the Public Theater), not only reveals him to be a playwriting double threat; it offers him the chance to people the stage with the marginalized multitudes of his childhood. Accompanied by guitarist Bill Sims Jr. and occasionally moved to jam his feelings on harmonica, Santiago-Hudson soulfully aspires in his autobiographical art to the condition of music.
The production pays tribute to Miss Rachel Crosby, the woman who raised Hudson as a son in her upstate New York boarding-house. Known around town as Nanny for her inexhaustible stability and nurturing, she’s the safety net for people with names like Ol’ Po’ Carl and Numb Finger Pete, as well as a few battered wives and a wonder-eyed boy named Santiago, deserted by his working mother. As Santiago-Hudson succinctly puts it, “Nanny was like the government if it really worked.” Through the eyes of a youth we gain a portal into this spurned and often violent community, and the way it’s elevated in the arms of Nanny’s indomitable self-respect. Under Loretta Greco’s smooth direction, Santiago-Hudson’s manifold performance similarly lifts his characters in the humanity of the actor’s embrace. —Charles McNulty
The Not-So-Sweet Science
Near the close of Paul Mullin’s Louis Slotin Sonata (EST), likable physicist Philip Morrison posits America’s ability to build “a working peace on the novelty and terror of the atomic bomb.” Morrison was speaking in 1946, but even in these late times, building a play on this novelty and terror still seems possible, even desirable. Though the threat of nuclear war has abated, our artists aren’t half done sifting through the thematic and metaphoric fallout from the atomic era.
But playwright Mullin, commissioned by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, has let all the radiation get to his head. He locates a fine story in the real-life misadventures of nuclear scientist Louis Slotin, but he clogs it with inert material. In May 1946, Slotin’s hand slipped while he was conducting a possibly unnecessary test on a mass of plutonium core. The accident effectively sentenced Slotin to death from radiation poisoning. An atomic-age everyman, Slotin spends his final hospital-bound days putting his life in order and mind at rest. Mullin has more than enough material for a play here, but he contaminates the formula with shallow reflections on metaphysics and morals as well as ill-advised dream sequences featuring dance numbers and Dr. Josef Mengele. Mengele, the chief doctor at Auschwitz, is a presence that the play—though it professes to question the utility and danger of science—neither requires nor merits.
As Louis Slotin (heck, even as Mengele), William Salyers performs with sensitivity and charm. He is joined by a strong supporting cast, particularly Joel Rooks as Slotin’s father and Allyn Burrows as the sympathetic Morrison. Mullin isn’t far from making some substantial dramaturgical discoveries. He should reconfigure his hypothesis, make some alterations in materials, and run his experiment again. —Alexis Soloski
Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow
Greed, hypocrisy, manipulation—it’s not a Molière comedy, but Jean-François Regnard’s A Will of His Own (Pearl Theater Company). Written in 1708, the French romp pits young, lovelorn Valere against his ailing, skinflint uncle, Geronte. Valere needs Geronte’s riches to win his girlfriend’s hand in marriage; problem is, the old geezer won’t make a will naming Valere as his heir. Aiding and abetting the hapless nephew are his valet, Crispin, and Geronte’s maid, Lisette—if Valere inherits, Crispin’s share will enable him to marry the maid.
Alas, this promising setup sinks faster than the Titanic under the weight of leaden exposition and inept plotting. Regnard is no Molière; shenanigans like Crispin impersonating Geronte are embellished with toilet humor fit for South Park (sample character name: Master Enema). And under Russell Treyz’s direction, sloppy timing and ceaseless mugging mar the slapstick thrown in to spice things up. With her inanely chirpy delivery and perma-grin, Celeste Ciulla (Lisette) seems to be channeling Carol Brady, while Arnie Burton as Crispin flounders. At least the costumes, by E. Shura Pollatsek, dispense wit, via Geronte’s headgear (a kind of Smurf hat avec earflaps) and Crispin’s improvised disguises.
It doesn’t help that the cast speaks in rhyming couplets throughout, a challenge the lead players haven’t mastered (the others, especially Valerie Leonard and Rachel Botchan, fare better). Though Michael Feingold’s translation follows the original’s verse form, the results can sound stilted—try “You freed my plan from its last fear confining” on for size. By the time Geronte is carted offstage in a dead faint (caused by Crispin’s histrionics), you’ll wish you shared his unconscious state. —J. Yeh