In Tale of 2Cities: An American Joyride on Multiple Tracks, Heather Woodbury stages a scene at a dire dinner party in 1950s L.A. Amid the Triscuits and cheeseballs, a screenwriter husband and his do-gooder wife argue over plans to replace a Mexican barrio with public-housing projects. The wife worries that it will destroy the local culture, but the husband applauds it. “He said that’s what he liked about California,” the wife recounts in a letter to her sister, “no culture whatsoever.”
But writer-performer Woodbury, who relocated from the L.E.S. to Echo Park some years ago, has devoted herself to proving that husband wrong. Her two-part, five-hour epic chases dozens of characters from 1941 to 2001, zooming between NYC and L.A. She and six other actors play Mexican grandmas, Irish cabbies, Puerto Rican delinquents, and a Jewish rabbi with a passion for the muffins at Starbucks. Woodbury cuts and pastes a prodigal collage of races, classes, genders, and ethnicities. These all somehow stem from the Dodgers’ move from Brooklyn to L.A. and the psychic upheaval that wrought. Her nominal subject is dear to most any Downtowner’s heart: gentrification and its discontents.
Surprisingly, Tale of 2Cities is in some ways less ambitious than Woodbury’s previous work. She last sojourned at P.S.122 with What Ever: An American Odyssey in Eight Acts, an eight-hour solo narrative in which she played over a hundred characters. But excess still abounds in the current show and—shades of William Blake—there’s wisdom here as well. She’s a tender writer, almost to a fault, supplying silver linings for each cloud she introduces. Indeed, she’s written an ace part for herself in the character of Miriam, that do-gooder wife at the dinner party, an East Coast naïf sorely eager to rout poverty and injustice.
Under Dudley Saunders’s direction, each actor is allowed at least one knockout turn. Leo Marks delights as the cabbie, especially in conversation with Ed Vassallo as the rabbi. Diane Rodriguez is striking as the dead grandmother, whose grandson Manny (the extraordinary Michael Ray Escamilla) composes a most unusual dirge. A remarkable DJ, Manny determines to make a funeral mix from his grandmother’s records, to “embalm her in samples of my music, wash her feet in rhythm, oil her hair in song.” Manny’s art may be the best analogue for Woodbury’s. She, too, manages multiple songs, layering them, overlapping them, bestowing scratches, reverb, samples. She blends idle monologue with fierce interrogation, party conversation with incantation, gossip with threnody. And if the shining-eyed audience reception is any sign, you can definitely dance to it.
After reveling in the assured and vivid presence of Tale of 2Cities, it’s jarring to attend P.S.122’s other current show: Peter S. Petralia’s Invisible Messages, a performance piece concerning absence in disappearance. In short scenes, three characters reveal a loss of self. Meredith (Meredith Smart) explains that a debilitating depression left her “evaporated into a strange kind of shadow living.” With her illness cured, she’s determined to regain her lost emotional experiences. Mandy (Mandy Caughey) discovers she suffered a horrific accident as a child and decides to visit the people who donated the blood and flesh that reconstructed her. Alessandro (Alessandro Magania) takes great pains to erase himself from the world. He even provides a handy presentation, with visual aids, on “How to Disappear: A Step-by-Step Guide.”
Writer-director Petralia encourages little illusion. The performers manipulate the set pieces and live video equipment themselves. They even ask each other to play certain characters in their narratives. “Can we do my scene now?” Mandy might eagerly request. Petralia has clearly devoted much thought to the themes of identity and perception, but a greater theatricality might have made these reflections more compelling. The choppy structure, the presentational tone, the intentional awkwardness of the performances all prevent the ideas from resonating. The piece has taken Alessandro’s advice to heart. It, too, disappears.