Down at P.S.122, theater is going through an awkward phase, stuck between hyper-self-consciousness and the possibility of growing up into something genuinely interesting. Running in rep—and somewhat in circles—Young Jean Lee’s Pullman, WA and Kyle Jarrow’s Gorilla Man tackle the perennial question of how to live. Their styles may be radically different, but the results are similarly mixed.
Pullman, WA starts with the house lights still up and no scenery in sight. A guy (Pete Simpson) wanders onstage and nervously addresses the audience. He wants to share the secret of being happy: Stop judging yourself. Don’t drink. But two other “helpers,” Thomas Bradshaw and Tory Vazquez, soon show (him) up with competing advice: The key to life is to have been born someone else. Or to accept Jesus Christ as your savior. Or to visualize “a little round owl face on a record player that goes around and around” whenever you’re stressed out. Or to . . . you get the idea.
At one point Simpson looks out at us and asks, “What are you doing here?” It’s not an idle question for an emerging experimental playwright—you’ve got to admire Lee’s wry directness—but we might ask her the same thing. Like a theatrical anatomy class, Pullman, WA dissects a set of impulses instead of bringing them to urgent life in the service of an overall event. There are ways to be coherent without being conventional.
If Lee strips the stage bare in search of its essentials, writer-composer Jarrow crowds Gorilla Man with genres, pop ballads, and even himself. Resembling a refugee from the ska band Madness, Jarrow plays a mean onstage piano while serving as the production’s emcee, occasional sound operator, and über-ironist.
This pop pastiche fable recounts the tale of hapless, fatherless young Billy, who wakes up one morning to discover his follicles are sprouting thick, black fur. Terrified, he calls for his mother, who promptly points a gun at him and apologizes for having to shoot. You see, Billy’s doomed to wreak havoc—and clog a lot of shower drains—just like his long-lost father, the Gorilla Man. Can the son escape the father’s fate?
Jarrow has great taste in collaborators: The direction, design, and cast snap, crackle, and rock; as Billy’s mother, Stephanie Bast steals the stage, with help from her fabulous outfit (courtesy of Sky Switser) and killer vocals. But even the wet-eyed sensitivity of Jason Fuchs as the hirsute Billy can’t imbue this production with sufficient soul and grit to keep it from evoking little more than a witty prom night with a ’80s British pop aesthetic. Going ape works as a brilliantly simple way to explore how we escape (or accept) our genes, our ferocious longings, and our often absurd destinies. But Jarrow’s smirky irony trivializes Billy’s very human bewilderment rather than setting it in stark relief.