Magic realism can be daunting. Even the most experienced literary practitioners have moments when they stumble—when the sudden insertion of wild flights of fantasy in otherwise realistic plots is more confounding than enlightening.
That said, literature is more forgiving than theater when it comes to this genre, partly because books have a consistent narrator who can assume (as Gabriel García Márquez put it) “a brick face” while leading the reader through bizarre and disparate moments. Theater is a lot messier, as the LITE Company’s production of Dmitry Lipkin’s The Wanderer makes all too clear.
Set in contemporary Brighton Beach, Lipkin’s play follows the lives of a group of Russian immigrants, most of whom have given up relatively secure circumstances in the old country to try their luck at American market capitalism. Of course, it hasn’t turned out too well. Into this group drops—quite literally—a sweet, bewildered young man named Pasha (Seth Kanor). This character, who has “fallen very far . . . and very hard,” turns out to be a kind of guardian angel who takes on different personae to offer these Slavs various forms of enlightenment. Think of a youthful, sexier version of Henry Travers’s Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life, with a touch of Zelig thrown in for good measure.
Lipkin will probably be irked that I gave that plot twist away, but I’m doing him a favor. There is, after all, next to nothing in the realistic first act that elucidates the point of Pasha’s character or anticipates the Big Themes and fantastical turns that come hurtling at the audience after halftime. With all the preliminary realism, which Lipkin actually handles well, there’s no room for the magic—which he’s far less adept at—when it finally comes.
However, the real problems of this production lie in Adam Melnick’s unimaginative, workmanlike direction. Early scenes stumble along at a snail’s pace, actors are cruelly left on the tiny Flea stage for embarrassingly long periods with nothing to do, and clunky sound and projection effects generate unintentional laughter. In general, little in The Wanderer evokes the rich Brighton Beach culture.
The one exception is composer-musician Brian Gottesman. Perched to the side behind a synthesizer and microphone, the deadpan performer portrays a smarmy Russian DJ, gives voices to a variety of soap opera characters, and plays a drippy cocktail piano at the appropriate moments. His playfulness and innate sense of irony—call it “brick-facedness”—are precisely the elements missing from the rest of this production.