Voice Critics Debate the Theater Season So Far


Around this time of year, many New Yorkers suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. The gray days and early darkness can occasion despair and a craving for carbohydrate-heavy foods. Happily, theater critics aren’t so susceptible to the winter blues. Our season is in full swing—chockablock with plays and unclassifiable performance works. To survey the past months, Voice critics Eric Grode, Tom Sellar, and Alexis Soloski met to discuss the good, the bad, and the cataclysmic.

Alexis Soloski: So what are some of your favorite shows so far this season?

Eric Grode: Ivo van Hove’s La Voix humaine, which he directed on Governors Island as part of the New Island Festival of Dutch performance. You left the central space of the festival, which was very exuberant, and just walked and walked to this godforsaken part of the island. La Voix humaine is a Jean Cocteau piece in which a character is having a phone conversation with a guy who has dumped her. It was very peppy, but very bleak. This woman is so alone, the world has shut down around her. And the walk to the performance space gave you the same experience.

Tom Sellar: I liked another piece from the New Island Festival, Braakland, by a group called Compagnie Dakar, which was based on two novels by J.M. Coetzee, performed on a field. Very powerful and moving, disturbing and dark. It was about various figures who find themselves in the same post-industrial space and how the power dynamic kicks in. There was plenty of violence and political rage, just as in all of Coetzee’s writing. It was very beautiful.

AS: The New Island shows I attended weren’t nearly so good, so I think I’ll pick L’Effet de Serge, at Under the Radar. It’s a small, self-contained piece about a man who devises low-tech special effects in his spare time. It breaks my heart.

TS: Another of my choices is Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy.

EG: Yes, that’s on my list of favorites, too.

TS: I thought it was wonderful to see a piece that takes on a serious subject—ideas about grace, mortality, and the limitations of the body.

EG: I found myself thinking of it very recently. I just saw Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Romeo and Juliet. So many of the people they interviewed about the plot of Romeo and Juliet couldn’t remember how the death scenes work, and, OK, it is a little complicated, but it made me think about all those people in Let Me Down Easy who ask, “How are you going to die?” and how Deavere Smith took on that question in such a haunting way.

AS: She’s an extraordinary performer, but I felt there were too many ideas, too many questions. There was a show about death and also a show about health care (a very short one) and another about the potentials of the body. I found it too diffuse.

EG: Maybe she’s too famous now or has too much access. I wasn’t interested in a lot of the celebrities she included—although my wife and I still talk about how our two-year-old eats muffins very much like her Lance Armstrong does.

TS: I also really enjoyed Nature Theater’s Romeo and Juliet. I’m not sure about the final gesture of the piece, but for my money, it’s as off-kilter and yet as smart as downtown theater can get. I like the tension between the theatricality of what they were doing and the language they were using as a source text, in that flattened telegraphic way.

AS: Yes, but they did that in No Dice, and now they’re doing it again. They’re brilliant, but I’d like to see them take on something new. OK, any least favorite shows?

TS: I’ve repressed most of them. I think the worst thing I saw was Antigone at 3LD, which I thought was a cataclysm. Every element was misjudged—from Indonesian dancing that wasn’t well-executed to high-tech stuff that didn’t work at all.

EG: The only flat-out bad show I saw was also Greek, JoAnne Akalaitis’s The Bacchae in Central Park.

AS: Oh, I thought it was merely disappointing.

EG: I don’t understand when Dionysus became Puck. This whole idea of a winsome god is so misguided.

AS: My worst show was one that I think—I hope—you didn’t see, a show at the Living Theatre called Red Noir that had forced audience participation. You were groped for, like, half an hour.

TS: And not in a good way?

AS: No! It was like the cast party for my high school production of Hair. But much less fun. We mentioned The Bacchae, but I found several other shows quite disappointing: Coraline at MCC, David Adjmi’s Stunning, the Public’s Othello. I thought Young Jean Lee’s Lear was compelling, but jumbled and uneven, more of a first or second draft than a finished work.

TS: I think Lear has generally been misunderstood to be a “deconstruction.” That said, I couldn’t see any humor or poetic investigation to make the piece stand on its own terms. It looked unformed and underthought. Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge was ambitious, but the writing didn’t support the level of production. It’s too bad it wasn’t centered on something more substantial. I also think of Robert Lepage’s Lipsynch at BAM. The resources in bringing a nine-hour epic with that level of visual effect must have been tremendous—it’s so depressing it was all for such an empty experience.

EG: The Bacchae, of course, and Coraline. And Superior Donuts, which is the worst play Tracy Letts is capable of writing, though still effective. He’s such a good writer that even the worst thing he could write is probably still worth seeing. But very disappointing.

TS: I didn’t go because I thought August: Osage County had such a wonderful cast working with such weak writing, heaping dysfunction on until a sentimental conclusion about Native Americans. I gave up then.

AS: I went about for days calling it Serviceable Donuts. I’m not sure Michael McKean counts, but it’s been a big year for big stars. What do we make of that?

EG: Who have we had this year? Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig, Jude Law.

AS: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Cate Blanchett.

EG: Al Pacino is doing Shakespeare in the Park. Denzel Washington is coming to do Fences.

AS: Is that a good or a bad thing?

TS: I can think of two Off-Broadway shows this season that were undermined by star presence. One would be Idiot Savant. I’m really not sure Willem Dafoe was the right choice for that project—there was a very strange sort of self-conscious energy emanating from him. And The Bacchae—Jonathan Groff was at the heart of why the tragedy never coalesced.

AS: I’m quite ambivalent. On the one hand, I think there’s something wonderful about sharing a room with people you’ve only witnessed on the movie screen. If that brings audiences into the theater, I’m delighted. And I’m susceptible, too. The presence of Isabelle Huppert or Daniel Craig makes me that much more excited to attend. Yet, at the same time, I realize many of these film actors are ill-suited to the work.

EG: When you see a film actor struggling, it was like when Michael Jordan decided to play baseball. When you saw this amazing athlete striking out, you gained a new appreciation for how hard professional baseball must be. Maybe it somehow accrues to theater’s benefit when you see Sienna Miller struggling up there, and you think, “Playing Miss Julie must be a really challenging thing.”

AS: You’re like the most macho theater critic ever. I can’t believe you just used a sports metaphor.