New Yorkers of a certain age, blessed to obtain pieces of urban real estate back when the city was in a shambles and lofts and apartments were available for a song, might also have found themselves in possession of a modest country place. The founders of the Talking Band, Paul Zimet, Tina Shepard, and Ellen Maddow, are such people; longtime residents of Soho, they’ve taken inspiration for their newest work, The Room Sings, from a property they obviously know well, in the mountains north of Manhattan.
Deep in the woods, prone to invasion by bugs and small mammals, the decaying house shelters, across a stretch of seventy years, residents young and old, locals and immigrants from three continents. Maddow, who composed the music, plays the part of one of the downstairs rooms, channeling an old vaudevillian, her ratty outfit resembling layers of peeling wallcoverings. Baxter Engle’s video brings the lush landscape into view, seen through a kitchen window and on the rear wall of the capacious Ellen Stewart Theatre.
The 75-minute piece is a workmanlike construction, cinematic in its rapid shifts among generations of occupants of the house. Set pieces on wheels (by Nic Ularu) make scene changes very efficient; the cast of eleven choreographs these moves down to split seconds. Similar in form to Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s current Broadway outing, the play toggles back and forth in time, revealing a web of characters: elderly siblings (Shepard and Jack Wetherall) sharing the house in 1943; a retired Chinese laundryman (Henry Yuk) and his young houseguest (Luka Kain) tortured by a mother’s ghost in 1958; two brothers (Joe Roseto and Andrew Weems) and one of their wives (Theresa McCarthy) confronting adversity in 1987; and a middle-aged couple (Will Badgett and Abigail Ramsay) cleaning the place out in 2015, preparing to sell it after the wife’s mother’s death. They spend their days looking after the bereaved widower (James Himelsbach) and dreaming of a future trip to Florence.
The Room Sings has a delicate structure, more poetic than dramatic; its allusive text resonates with a viewer long after the lights fade. One of the brothers, a stressed-out lawyer, dreams of writing a puppet opera about the industrious beavers in the nearby pond; the other, a theatrical stage manager, likes to fish. Time has taken a toll on these people and left its marks on the house. Death has touched and changed several lives.
Each tenant, too, leaves a stamp on the place, most notably on a panel of blood-spattered wallpaper styled after a Chinese scroll. The Chinese man has drawn frogs on it and encourages his young guest, Oskar, whose Colombian father was killed in the yard by a falling branch, to draw on it as well. The two construct paper versions of things their dead relatives value — noodles, money, a hammer, a house — and set them on fire, so that the objects travel in the form of smoke to the place where the dead reside.
The Band saves its literary and theatrical fireworks for the last half-hour, when the lonely widower, reduced by a stroke to a vocabulary consisting of one word, suddenly launches into a dramatic parable, dreaming of the Hilbert Hotel Paradox (look it up!). The Room dreams of being able to see what’s upstairs. The tortured lawyer dreams his opera into being.
“We pretend this house and land is ours,” observes the husband, a musician who dreams of orchestrating the frogs, “but as soon as we’re gone the deer, the mice, the weeds and trees take over. We’re just squatters here.”
He’s right, of course, but to tell you more would spoil the play’s extraordinary apotheosis. Let’s just say that the Obie-winning team behind The Room Sings have a sure hand on the tiller, steering their new piece along tricky shoals between fantasy and realism. Take a holiday from our current woes, and revel in it.
The Room Sings
66 East 4th Street
Through April 16