Unsentimental Education

Good news, you think, another play from the guy who penned Tape, the taut little drama that became an all-star cult flick. Stephen Belber’s new comedy Transparency of Val (La Tea Theatre) feels like an earlier, college-y exploration of a similar theme: Truth’s a slippery commodity—the more you find out, the less you know. But, though the writer displays flashes of dazzling verbal dexterity and wit, this blowsy, abstract comic treatise grows deadeningly repetitious.

It kicks off, though, with a promising premise: the education of a young man in life, politics, religion, science, and sex—abridged to absurdity. We first see Val as a white bundle dropped clumsily at the feet of his nervous parents. They barrage the little parcel with all the knowledge, prejudices, and platitudes they possess, from photosynthesis to religions to the treatment of Geronimo and Paul Robeson. Within minutes, they are dressing the tyke in short pants and sending him off to school with pop-culture-riddled directions: “Take the Ho Chi Minh to the Trail of Tears, left on the information highway, right on Jack LaLanne, left on Easy Street, back on My Way.”

This comic force propels the action through Val’s first day at school, where his hippy-dippy teacher, in song, with classmates beating time, races through capitalism, Darwinism, existentialism, and practical advice: “It’s good to be sexually active so long as your mother’s not making your bed.”

If Belber had rushed his hapless hero and pals through puberty, college, work, war, and death with this same breathless energy, Transparency of Val might have been delightful. Instead, time drags as the playwright, in the next two hours, piles on gender confusion, Nazi dream figures, anti-vegetarian militarists, Mother Teresa, and a would-be-Swiftian war with an island nation that outlaws love.

And watch out for the assault of allegories! Val’s school friends’ names, Pro and New, stand for “Progressive Era” and “New Deal” (which later becomes “New Frontier”). These forays into symbolism lack meaning or bite in such an amorphous mass.

Sam Helfrich’s direction is better than the script, but his inventive stagecraft ultimately can’t save it. In a play awash in verbiage, he’s created a production of striking physicality. In pubescent angst, Val and his love Rudi, a girl-turned-boy-turned girl, perform an awkward love dance with chicken-neck jerks and come-hither shoulder twitches. In another sequence, Val, perched on a job interviewer’s knee, squeaks answers like a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Helfrich has won sharp performances from an agile cast of seven in multiple roles, especially Jonathan Green as the gawky Val, perpetually poised between tentative curiosity and abject terror. Green makes Val a vivid, likable presence. If only this everyboy’s abbreviated history didn’t last what seems like a century. —Francine Russo

Genet’s Publicly Pooping Pope

By now, just the casting of Alan Cumming in a show is an assurance of a humdinger of an experience; since creating a hypnotizing Emcee in Cabaret, the actor-writer-producer-curiosity has indulged in an increasingly bizarre series of career choices. But put the man in charge of a theater company and hand him an obscure Jean Genet play, and the potential for outlandishness skyrockets.

And so we have Elle (the Zipper), the absurd inaugural offering from the Art Party, which Cumming founded with Nick Philippou and Audrey Rosenberg. In the play, a photographer arrives to take the official portrait of the Pope, only to be told by the pontiff himself that no such personage exists. The Pope has been worshiped to metaphysical death. He’s been obliterated by his office and the self-centered genuflecting of his followers, leaving God’s tragic representative bereft of identity and deity.

Genet’s language here, as adapted by Cumming, comes off rather soupy, but the message isn’t difficult to grasp. On one level, the playwright seems simply to have wanted to sock it to the Church. Beyond that, he’s concerned with our increased predilection for image over reality. Evidently, Genet thought the script pretty hot stuff. He wouldn’t allow Elle (originally called Sainteté) to be published or performed during his lifetime. Pity. A few decades ago, the story might have provoked some thought and a few flinches. Today’s audience accepts its themes with a yawn.

Still, I’m suspending judgment on the text because all I have to go on is this preposterous production. Did I mention that Cumming has been cast as the Pope, probably the role he’s least equipped to play? Then again, what a Cumming sort of Pope. He wears roller skates; the papal garment exposes his backside; he takes public shits in a chamber pot. These details, I am told, can be credited to Genet. But what about the Yiddish accent selected for the head of the Roman Catholic Church? And the miter with the big “P” in gold sequins? And the shutterbug’s oversized suit that’s something out of David Byrne’s 1980s closet?

Anson Mount plays the photog with the handsome, nerdy stiffness of a young Ryan O’Neal. In the role of the Usher, Stephen Spinella has taken on another of the voice-of-authority observer/attendant roles so at odds with his essentially campy persona. And Cumming—well, he’s having a riot. But he always seems to be enjoying himself, often at the expense of the play or film. He possesses a magnetic and engaging presence, but his performance is a stunt. So, for that matter, is Elle. The company has furnished the party atmosphere. Let’s hope they remember to bring the art next time around. —Robert Simonson