Environmental Hazards


“Location, location, location” may be the shibboleth of real estate mavens, but for theater it usually comes down to two choices: Broadway or Off-Broadway. Site-specific theater, which took a playful turn in the unruly experiments of the ’60s, was an attempt to jettison expectations implicit in conventional stage architecture, no matter the zip code or seating capacity. Traditional venues were seen to exert a domesticating influence. Enter a theater building and you expect the art form to perform in a certain way. Set the theatrical event outside and something surprising has the potential to emerge. But, as the entire history of Shakespeare in the Park bears witness, locale more often than not upstages action. Even when freed from the straitjacket of the proscenium, drama requires discipline. The muse doesn’t simply relax her standards in the open air. If anything, non-traditional place adds the tricky challenge of integrating a novel backdrop into a total theatrical vision.

The decision to stage Bernard-Marie Koltès’s In the Solitude of Cotton Fields in Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall might not be an obvious one, but it makes perfect sense. The author prescribes a menacing, indeterminate environment with a strong, illicit musk. Unfortunately, director Rafael DeMussa treats the setting as a mere abstraction, never embracing its gritty particularity, and thus compounding the over-rationalized (i.e., under-imagined) quality of Koltès’s writing.

This is especially unfortunate as the playwright—a Frenchman who died of AIDS in 1989—was one of the more promising European dramatists. A kind of Genet rebel with a postcolonial consciousness, he was extending the tradition of tragic dissent that, in his best work, Roberto Zucco, harks all the way back to Buchner. As Koltès is rarely produced in the States (serious contemporary French playwriting must seem a bit too serious for American producers), Cotton Fields provides a welcome opportunity to become better acquainted with his incisive imagination. It may not be his most compelling piece—and it certainly deserves a production more attentive to its bestial vigor and sweatiness—but it remunerates (on the page anyway) attention for those curious about late-20th-century developments in Western playwriting.

A two-hander divided into long monologues, the play revolves around “a dealer and a client,” who are engaged in a sub rosa game of buying and selling. What’s for sale is anyone’s guess, though there’s an erotic frisson throughout that suggests male hustling. (Dripping saliva and the preoccupation with the position of one’s male “sex” tip Koltès’s hand.) The problem, however, is that the central idea of human commodification dominates the poetic construction. We register the social critique early and wish the ensuing interaction between the two men would entice us more. No doubt an auteur like Patrice Chéreau, who staged the American premiere in French at BAM in 1996, found ways of infusing the dynamic with suspenseful sexuality. Strange that a production at Grand Central Station should be a model of bland sterility.

In both his overall direction and performance as the dealer, DeMussa makes the mistake common to Beckett interpreters of playing the “meaning” rather than the action. The result: Text and subtext lack cogency. More damaging still, you never feel threatened by DeMussa’s presence, which is about as ominous as a Macy’s mannequin. Nick Battiste doesn’t fare much better as the skittish client—his fear seems as bloodless as his supposed curiosity. Any hint of his character’s libidinal charge seems buried under blocks of difficult-to-memorize prose. Meanwhile, the train tunnels behind the actors served merely as conduits for sad musings on the demise of a playwriting talent not permitted enough time to ripen.

The rooftop pool of the Holiday Inn on 57th Street provides a watery stage for “Swim Shorts,” a festival that goes a long way toward underscoring the fundamental frivolity of swimming. Not even the most ardent of Esther Williams fans looks to a pool for serious art. Mary Zimmerman, of course, scored a Broadway hit by turning Metamorphoses into an underwater pool party in which every transformation was christened by a dunk. But Zimmerman’s undemanding Ovid treated its audience as though everyone in the house was lounging on a float with chlorinated eyes. To truly enjoy “Swim Shorts” you’d probably have to jump into the water with the rest of the cast.

The least ambitious fare works best. Chris Van Strander’s Cut, for example, involves two synchronized swimmers who, cut from the women’s Olympic team, revenge themselves on their coach by threatening to throw a toaster into the pool where they’re holding her hostage. Edward Lazellari’s Rubber Ducky, though rife with hackneyed ethnic humor, mildly diverts with its portrait of a bickering older Jewish couple bobbing in the deep sea after being thrown overboard.

Less successful is Jesse Cervantes’s tone-deaf verse drama, Drowning Ophelia, which imagines a convoluted Shakespearean afterworld in which Polonius’s suicidal daughter and slain King Duncan of Macbeth eventually make a heavenly match. Both Rich Orloff’s The Total Spiritual, which involves a comic interview with a newly deceased man and one of God’s practical joker bureaucrats, and Seth Kramer’s Surviving Fad, a parable about two fishes “evolving” into land creatures, ultimately strain for metaphors when plain old silliness would have sufficed.

After all, when the sun is plunking like an orange lantern into the horizon, who needs (half-baked) intellectual provocation? Site-specific theater may not make a playwright’s job any easier. But it can momentarily defang a critic—or at the very least lower expectations with a soft breeze and fluxing sky.

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