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Samuel (Rocco Sisto), the central figure of Richard Foreman’s new work, Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance) (Public Theater), has a problem. Not a major problem—those were dealt with in Foreman’s 1993 creation, Samuel’s Major Problems. But as usual with Foreman heroes, Samuel’s problems, major or minor, come from over-introspection. Like those very early Foreman protagonists who had trouble just getting through the door, he’s often too hung up to move at all. Hence the new piece’s many long, loaded silences. Its opening, in fact, is very nearly also its closing: An initial announcement is followed by a moment of dead air, broken by one of Foreman’s crash-box effects, and an offstage voice that thunders, “End of play!”
It’s not the evening’s last such proclamation, either. Hesitation and repetition have always been Foreman hallmarks, but Old-Fashioned Prostitutes, though a terse 65 minutes long, has an unusually large number of stops, restarts, and false endings. Far longer Foreman pieces have felt less attenuated. Here a pre-recorded voice regularly reiterates, “Hold it,” often interrupting Samuel in mid-sentence. At around the halfway mark, another insistent voice bawls out a repeated, irate, “Not yet!” The recurring “Hold it” is often followed by Foreman’s familiar on-mic voice saying “OK.”
These changing traffic signals, which rarely affect the actual traffic onstage, are familiar components of Foreman’s world, a soundtrack of unheeded instructions to match what has become, after five decades, one of the downtown theater’s most beloved and most appealingly eccentric visual environments. Here, as many times before, are the strings, some painted in alternating black-and-white stripes, that stretch across the playing space. Here are the inexplicable rows of capital letters that suggest an unsolved cryptogram (this time including a huge boardful that slides offstage and on again), as well as the disturbingly funereal floral arrangements on the walls. Aurally, mingling with the unheeded verbal injunctions, here once again are the faint, eerie fragments of ancient jazz and opera recordings that crop up randomly to underscore the action, or blare up arbitrarily to send the cast into seizures of frenetic, jittery motion.
With the onstage zaniness, inevitably, come the lights that suddenly glare into the audience’s eyes, plus the crashes, thuds, and bass-drum poundings (live onstage as well as pre-recorded) that heighten the already frazzling atmosphere. In an interview long ago, Foreman told me he saw these aggressive gestures as making his theater the mental equivalent of a gym workout for the audience. And then he added, sounding unexpectedly tender, “But I love my lights and my noises.” Watching as his work has mellowed over the years, I’ve come to love them too, and to see the beauty in them as well as the vociferation. Today, a Foreman piece in which nothing crashed or glared would seem a terrifying stylistic breach to me.
The crashes and the craziness always revolve around that one Foreman figure—Samuel is just one of many names he’s had—who’s less a person than an externalized inner consciousness given body by an actor. Foreman’s cast sizes vary, but this clownish central creature, always absurdly indecisive, is invariably flanked by, at a minimum, a male nemesis and a dangerously seductive female. In this piece, Samuel gets two versions of each. He has a male best friend, Alfredo (David Skeist), clad all in black and constantly causing offstage crashes of his own, as well as a slithery, white-garbed pursuer (Nicolas Noreña)—or might he be a sort of guiding spirit?—identified in the program as “Bibendum (a.k.a. Michelin),” an allusion to an advertising image of the past. This fellow, creeping about, offers Samuel cryptic apothegms or puzzling objects from a cardboard box. Over these as over everything he’s offered, Samuel dithers, frozen in indecisiveness.
His greatest dither, of course, is over sex with the title characters, languorous, soignée Suzie (Alenka Kraigher) and her readier, coarser best friend, Gabriella (Stephanie Hayes). Mind you, it’s not an issue of having sex in the here and now. Foreman has finally come round to one of the American dramatist’s traditional road stops and written a memory play. While the stage action of Old-Fashioned Prostitutes contains innumerable curious events, its dramatic action—what classicists used to call its “argument”—consists of Samuel evoking in his head a recollected image of streetwalkers seen in some unidentifiable city long ago, and then debating, in his memory, whether he had physical contact with one of them or not.
The possible permutations are infinite, and within the piece’s slow, elegantly curving gravitas, Foreman toys with them all, ranging in mood from world-weary nostalgia for a sweeter past to terrible perturbation at the emotional costs of all human encounters. A thinnish work to those who’ve experienced Foreman’s theater at its richest, this pensive study has the feel of a late-period watercolor rounding off a row of an old master’s oil paintings. Sisto, a tall, tuberous-nosed actor who is probably the world’s greatest living Shakespearean clown, animates the endlessly fluctuating needle of Samuel’s moves between puritanical rigidity and jellylike helpless surrender with touchingly goofy grace. Kraigher, less precise of speech, supplies a picture-perfect personification of languid eroticism.
Eroticism, alternately languid and frenetic, was a stock-in-trade of the Weimar-era Berlin that Foreman’s imagery often summons up. Naturally, it also plays a central role in Mark Nadler’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself (York Theatre), which treads the much-traveled ground of pre-Hitler German cabaret culture in a manner every bit as anomalous in its way as Foreman’s. A nightclub act that is also a theater piece, a survey of period songs that is also a confessional autobiography, Nadler’s solo performance would seem far more everyday if it had turned up in the avant-garde confines of Foreman’s old Ontological Incubator instead of a cozily traditional Off-Broadway house like the York.
While violinist Jessica Tyler Wright and accordionist Franca Vercelloni slink Foremanishly about, often in shadow, Nadler, at the piano or working the room, goes through a bundle of songs, mustly by Kurt Weill and Friedrich Hollander, known from prior excursions through Germany’s tragically brief first venture into democracy. His intriguingly jagged, almost Cubist arrangements often battle the fraught emotionalism of his singing, producing an effect wildly far from the deadpan “new objectivity” out of which these songs were born. His talk follows equally disparate trails, alternating paeans to the sexual and intellectual openness of 1920s Berlin with plaintive reminiscences of his isolation as a kid in Iowa. A revelation that unites the show’s schizoid halves renders it unexpectedly moving—less about Weimar than about “Why me?”—and distinctive among shows of its kind.