Back in 1965, with Warhol’s Factory on the rise and downtown Manhattan awash in avant-garde experimentation, a campy subgenre called the Theater of the Ridiculous was born. “We have passed beyond the absurd; our position is absolutely preposterous,” declared one of its founders, Ronald Tavel, whose plays The Life of Juanita Castro and Kitchenette are now being revived at Theater for the New City in a double bill entitled Two by Tavel. Contemplating Tavel’s idiosyncratic scenarios — rife with gender-bending antics and existential weirdness — it’s easy to imagine why Warhol became a fan.
But it takes more than nostalgia to make these plays exciting today. Directed by Theater of the Ridiculous veteran Norman Glick (with Jorge Acosta), and starring original Ridiculous performers including Ruby Lynn Reyner, the pieces depict (respectively) surreal doings of the Castro clan and an encounter between two odd couples in a kitchen with a portable toilet. Both feature slapstick, wacky accents, and colorful makeshift scenery.
Although the performers clearly have fun, the audience doesn’t. What once must have seemed excitingly impromptu now looks sloppy, and what might have read as daring parody appears half-baked. Wild gesticulation and effortful grimacing replace acting and
directing choices. These plays earned their place in the annals of the American avant-garde, but even theatrical keepsakes benefit from being rehearsed.