More Fresh Hells


There are two essential ways to be bored in the theater—one in which you’re stuck in an agony of anticipation of the obvious, the other in which you’re bereft of any expectation whatsoever and must seek amusement by counting the hairs on the neck of the guy sitting in front of you. The first type is bad—sort of like waiting, in the rain, for the 23rd Street crosstown that’s taking forever. The latter is far worse—more like being, without anything to read, on the 23rd Street crosstown that’s taking forever. In the first case, you can cling to some faith of eventual satisfaction; in the latter, you just know you’re trapped for all eternity.

I doubt that second feeling is what Michael Counts meant to inspire by setting So Long Ago I Can’t Remember in hell. (The subtitle is A Divine Comedy.) But the meandering, sometimes menacing, utterly meaningless series of tableaux does invite the metaphor. His Dantesque tour of hell’s various rings includes a scene in a café where customers and staff wander about, strike poses, take little note of a corpse, remove their clothes (a practice especially frequent among women in the show), and talk about sex. In a sort of monastery—sand floor, stone walls—clerics in red robes wander about, strike poses, take little note of a corpse, watch women take off their clothes, and talk about sex. In a backyard where a hanged man dangles from a tree, the performers wander about, strike poses—you get the picture. Each of these events takes place in a different area of the company’s vast 40,000-square-foot warehouse in DUMBO, the audience led from one to the next by a thin, periodically naked, dominatrix MC: “Do not touch the set or you will be asked to leave. Do not go past the ropes or you will be asked to leave.” A perpetual sound score by Joseph Diebes pipes in animal chirps, industrial whirs, melodic splashes, and very loud bass noises that make the floor and organs rumble.

The text is delivered Milli Vanilli style—the actors apparently lip-synching to amplified recordings. Because the badly enunciated speech issues from a single loud source, it’s difficult to identify which actor is “speaking” when, and far more difficult to ascertain what it is they are saying, or why. One catches snippets now and then: “upstairs with a fist up your cunt,” “How can a killer tell the difference between an ice pick and a cotton sock?” The problem is not that this doesn’t add up to any narrative or discursive clarity, but that it’s duller than dust, devoid of any discernible passions whatsoever. Counts has been anointed, at least among his cult following, as the next great genius of the theater of images, and there are a couple of nice visuals in the 90-minute first act I stayed for—a girl in a red dress swings back and forth behind a rectangular frame, against a blue, then a yellow, scrim. But much of the imagery is derivative—blank-faced actors advance downstage in a line, or they break into short and sudden frenzied dances. It’s straight from Reza Abdoh—but without the emotion and accusation. Or from the Wooster Group—but without the attitude and smarts. More important, while Counts occasionally sculpts space beautifully, he has little feel for the equally essential element of theater: time. There’s seldom any variation in tempo or rhythm: Like that stalled bus, So Long Ago has zero sense of forward—or sideways or backward—drive.

Despite three excellent performances, Angus MacLachlan’s The Dead Eye Boy suffers from the opposite problem: too much concern for building and relieving conventional suspense. The play, directed by Susan Fenichell, portrays a dysfunctional family doing its damnedest to make things better, but getting dragged down, down, down by the sins of their pasts: drug addiction and child abuse. Shirley-Diane (Lili Taylor) and Billy (Joseph Murphy), former addicts who met in a 12-step program, marry and try to build new lives together, along with Shirley-Diane’s adolescent son, Soren (Aaron Himelstein). MacLachlan neatly captures the cheerleading therapy-talk the couple relies on: “In the Marines, they teach you how, you know, t’scream real good,” says Billy, in a monologue framed as “sharing” at a meeting. “But what they don’t teach you is how to feel. Didn’t no one teach me, ever, ever, how. How to do nothing except be ugly. Mostly to myself.”

Trouble is, MacLachlan builds the plotting on exactly such clichés. He telegraphs the violence to come at least three times in every scene. So the tense hope that this couple might make a go of it goes slack in the first 10 minutes, leaving us nothing much to do but wait for them to live up to their stereotypes.

Related articles:

Alexis Soloski’s review of Gale Gates’s 1839.

Brian Parks’s review of Gale Gates’s Tilly Losch.