Four for 9-11

Unlike the well-connected Bat Theater Company, which has found an economic savior in its star-laden 9-11 play The Guys, the Present Company isn’t a rolodex away from Hollywood talent. It did, however, share with the Bat the same impulse in the wake of last fall’s terrorist attacks. Within a week, artistic director Elena K. Holy commissioned four plays about the event. They’re now being presented under the title Response: Stories About What Happened.

The first piece, The Uncaring Dog, a pantomime by Leslie Bramm, features a Chaplinesque tramp in arm braces doing hopeless battle with his recalcitrant dog and, it’s implied, an equally uncaring God. Given the evening’s intention to address a more specific horror, this broadly existential point proves frustrating. That life is random and unfair, we already knew.

Bramm also authored Lovers Leapt, in which he muses on what inspired the WTC workers who chose to jump rather than endure the fireball within. A hair-raising premise. Yet, the resulting play—about two pining office workers who finally connect in a shared demise—has a surprisingly light tone.

Staged between Bramm’s pieces is South Carolina playwright C. Rusch’s stiff, near amateurish The New Sign. While two Southern restaurant workers hang a new message on the eatery’s roadside sign, they bicker like cardboard position men over whether it should express sympathy for WTC victims or support for the military.

Julia Lee Barclay’s No One, which constitutes the entire second act of the show, is the only part of the largely colorless Response likely to prick the viewer’s consciousness. Barclay’s collage-like text ruminates on war, culture, and the nature of enmity. A cast of five spins it out in bits and phrases. They begin behind music stands, but are soon rolling and dancing about the stage. The author’s influences are easily recognizable: Richard Foreman’s comic way with seeming nonsense, Anne Bogart’s slice-and-dice approach to textual meaning, and Kristin Marting’s use of gestural vocabulary. But Barclay’s style is looser than Foreman’s or Bogart’s, her attitude more self-mocking than Marting’s. So the result is rather sui generis, even if the whole affair sometimes comes off as derivative of every loopy avant-garde piece of theater you’ve ever seen.

Though she has definite political ideas (which wouldn’t find fans in the Bush White House), No One encapsulates Barclay’s confusion about the meanings of 9-11. And therein lies the piece’s strength. Whatever else the audience feels about the attacks, confusion is one response it’s likely to recognize and share. —Robert Simonson

The Mind Kings

The Nighttown chapter of Ulysses is James Joyce’s mutability canto, a red-light smear of memory streams and metamorphoses where brothel becomes courtroom, men become women, and novel becomes play. Dublin’s den of sin is where Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom’s paths finally cross, as reality slip-slides under their staggering feet and “dear dead days beyond recall” come rushing back as drunken epiphanies and dream-logic proofs. Susan Mosakowski’s Nighttown (Flea Theater) conceives the eponymous district’s borders to be as imaginatively porous as time and identity are within it—all exists inside the mind. Or so Caesar McCarthy (Michael Ryan), presently housed at a Dublin asylum for the mentally ill, would like to convince his fellow patient, Leo Kettle (Matthew Maguire). “We’re going to Nighttown,” announces Caesar, who has rechristened himself James Joyce and decided that his roommate is one “Poldy” Bloom. He speaks as though the trip were an option, and soon enough, it is. The self-styled artist as a middle-aged man and his skeptical surrogate can forge their own Bloomsday from the comforts of the sanatorium.

The play transpires within a single, fluorescent-lit cell as a series of discrete episodes, as the patients argue, bargain, scheme, and nearly come to blows. How many days or weeks pass remains uncertain, as does (at first) the origins of Leo’s imprisonment: Did he drown his wife’s lover, or did he try to drown himself? Suicide, as performed by “most attractive and enthusiastic women,” ripples in Ulysses‘s Nighttown like a watery ghost, and Mosakowski’s script suggests a conflation of erotically tinged fatalism with Caesar and Leo’s unspoken despair—which they attempt to transcend within four walls by sheer force of will.

Mosakowski’s evocative script (which preserves Joyce’s walk-on role for a bar of soap) holds promise that her direction doesn’t fulfill. The men often stand at opposite sides of the stage, leaving the viewer with tennis-match whiplash, while their back-and-forth bickering oddly accommodates an awkward pause between each parry. Both actors betray a taint of phonetics in their delivery; the toils of an Irish accent subsume the meaning of the words themselves, and Ryan, though a dead ringer for Sunny Jim in specs and derby, especially struggles to maintain his brogue. Nighttown‘s ultimate subject is the potency of thought divorced from action: Is imagined experience an index of sad delusion or a journey unto itself? If you commit a crime only inside your head, are you just as guilty? The playwright fixed herself a tall order by seeking to dramatize definitively interior processes, but here the uncreated conscience remains stubbornly glued between book covers. —Jessica Winter