Idiot Savant Travels to Foremania, What Once We Felt to Dystopia; The Understudy Goes Nowhere


I’ve paid so many pleasurable visits to Richard Foreman’s world that the number of people I know who’ve never been there always surprises me. People who’ve visited once, disliked it, and never went back, in contrast, I understand, and probably Foreman does, too. His world is in ours, is identical to ours, but is also an entirely foreign place, with its own rules and customs. Not understanding what goes on there is perfectly natural, since you don’t know the language. Repeat visitors can learn to follow the conversation a little; after decades, I myself can fathom only a few fragments of it. But unlike those who’ve vowed never to go back, I find the peculiar place enjoyable. I’ve come to recognize its people, who tend to run to familiar types, and have gotten fond of their extremely odd behavior. I’d feel deprived if I thought I could never visit again.

One has to watch out for certain dangers in Foreman’s world, of course, most of which turn up in his new piece, Idiot Savant (Public Theater). Although the place is a purely mental landscape, demarcated as always by black-and-white striped strings, harsh lights may confront your eyes or sudden loud explosions assault your ears. No physical harm ever occurs, but Foremania, if I may name it that, has always seemed a treacherous place for those venturing on an intellectual or spiritual quest, as Foreman’s heroes always do, poor endearing fools. They are he, and they are us, and they are the attempt to make sense of the world while being in a play, an absurd idea that can only lead to either tragic slapstick or metaphysical allegory, both of which occur with alarming frequency. Picture a Foreman play as something between a minuet and a wrestling match engaged in by those two concepts, and you’ve come a step closer to understanding the Foremanian way of life.

Images beyond slapstick or metaphysics customarily get scrambled into the planetary mix. Idiot Savant, for instance, features a giant duck that might be God, and an invitation to play “interspecies golf.” Foremania’s aficionados often distinguish one visit from another by means of these singular phenomena. (Was such-and-such the piece with the guillotine and the vanishing cabinet, or the one with the gilded toy cars and the menacing giant cake?) Erotic temptation, which always throws the hero off course, leaving his quest in shambles, occurs regularly, divided, as in Idiot Savant, between a tall, Valkyrian ice princess (Alenka Kraigher) and a pert brunette (Elina Lowensohn) with a Weimar-era aura.

The event almost always revolves around the hapless hero, played in Idiot Savant by Willem Dafoe, who comes bearing celebrity creds, for those who feel such things add meaning. Meaning, in Foremania, always appears so thickly impasted that adding a little extra does no harm. But the actor whose creativity can make Foreman’s eternally questing saphead a distinct individual is really inventing his own form of celebrity. Dafoe registers ably, or should I say Foremanfully, on this long and distinguished list: Will Patton, James Urbaniak, David Patrick Kelly, Tom Nelis, T. Ryder Smith, and Rocco Sisto rank among his notable predecessors in the Foremanian Hall of Fame.

Some of them have also played the hero’s faintly demonic male antagonist, a role that, in Idiot Savant, has been assimilated into the author’s voice that booms from loudspeakers, disembodied and godlike. The substance of Idiot Savant is an argument this authorial voice carries on—with himself, with his characters, ultimately with us—over what constitutes the play, how it should proceed, whether there’s reason to have a play at all. The last question is the great one that every playwright must ask. To it, Foreman’s productions, with their crash-box effects and their proleptic collisions, always offer a freshly Foremanian version of the same great answer.

If only Theresa Rebeck could answer the question greatly, or freshly, the endless succession of plays she turns out might carry some interest. But Rebeck, far from creating her own world, dresses her nonsense up so that it seems to take place in this one, while slipping in such absurdities that you wonder what planet she’s living on. Maybe on Mars, Broadway has understudy rehearsals like the one in The Understudy (Laura Pels Theatre), where a Broadway hit’s production stage manager (Julie White) has never met the new understudy (Justin Kirk), who turns out to be the ex-boyfriend she’s not over yet. This drives the PSM into something like PMS, despite the kindness of the second lead, an action-movie star (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), who has generously shown up to rehearse the lead role, which he’s covering. (Amazing planet, Mars.)

The hit they’re rehearsing, definitely a Mars-only phenom, is a three-hour-long “lost” play by Kafka. Apparently no translator or adaptor is involved in the production; nor will you find any director or assistant director at Rebeck’s idea of a Broadway understudy rehearsal—much less any of the presumable legion of producers it would require—who might want to make sure their movie star was being well treated. White works awfully hard to garner the play’s meager laughs; she sounds, at times, understandably, like a woman trying to lift a 10-ton truck. Kirk’s irritating mannerisms fit his irritating character handily; Gosselaar, stuck with the “feed” role, fills it amiably with charm and good looks.

Ann Marie Healy, whose What Once We Felt inaugurates Lincoln Center’s LCT3 season (the Duke), has at least tried to create her own world, a sci-fi dystopia where men no longer exist and a tyrannical junta decides which women may or may not “download” a baby. As in her earlier work, produced by 13P last year, Healy shows promise and daring. Unhappily, she also shows glaring novice faults, like leaning too heavily on familiar models and grinding her dialogue into a rhythm-less, repetitive stasis, which Ken Rus Schmoll stages at a painfully plodding pace. A good cast works hard, but only Ellen Parker and Marsha Stephanie Blake manage, briefly, to get past the obstacles.