virtualAfter the first few minutes of Alan Arkin’s “Virtual Reality”, one could be forgiven for thinking that the playwright had awoken one night in a fevered fit of inspiration and began to scribble down a tale of two men whose time was fruitlessly spent waiting for the arrival of someone who may or may not ever appear, all the while bantering and bickering about this and that, a dialogue of tedium broken only by the insipidity of such anodyne observations as how can we even know ourselves, and then perhaps Arkin thought that maybe he should name the two hapless souls Vladimir and Estragon – until he snapped out of his reverie and realized that, alas, that particular play had already been written.

Luckily for the audience, Arkin apparently came-to early enough in his literary efforts to salvage what remained of “Virtual Reality”. It begins with a rather protracted verbal repartee over whether or not one man, Lefty (Aman Soni), will show another, DeRecha (Josh Hartung), some form of ID to prove that he is, in fact, who he says he is. But once that’s all perfunctorily taken care of for some reason or another, Arkin shakes off the importunate ghost of Beckett and begins the play in earnest, which involves DeRecha and Lefty, strangers to one another, meeting for the stated purpose of accomplishing some undefined “job”. The two men await the delivery of equipment needed for the job’s accomplishment, during which wait they cast themselves into a downward-plunging spiral of absurdity and unreality.

The one, DeRecha, aptly cast as a two-bit, pinstripe-suited gangster of the distinctly dipsomaniacal, avuncular type, thinks it best that the duo treat the equipment to a “test run”. Lefty, cast as a less experienced henchman with an air of youthful bravado – and not a little bit of the malnourishment and desperation that comes with overzealous, impecunious youth – wonders what, exactly, a “test run” of unpacking, inventorying, and assembling as-yet-undelivered equipment, the nature of which is still an utter mystery to our two friends, entails. There is, as he tirelessly reminds DeRecha, no equipment yet.

And so begins the spiral of absurdity, with DeRecha commanding a reluctant and skeptical Lefty to open and unpack imaginary crates filled with imaginary equipment, which he, DeRecha, then catalogues in an imaginary receipt. The more non-existent equipment Lefty unpacks, however, the more terribly real it all becomes, until the two would-be accomplices find themselves in another reality wholly of their own creation.

DeRecha and Lefty were, for the most part, played convincingly enough, even if at times it felt as though it was Hartung who was best able to keep the production afloat when it threatened to founder. Whether this is due to his superior abilities or to Soni’s unfortunately garbled elocution and stiff, awkward demeanor is difficult to say. But I would go so far as to argue that the road bumps in the production had more to do with the shortcomings of the play itself than they did with the actors’ enthusiastic treatment thereof. For example, the inexplicably prolonged scene in which DeRecha pesters an increasingly indignant Lefty for his ID would have tried the skills of veteran actors for the simple reason that it is not a particularly engaging or entertaining scene, despite its pretensions. Then there’s the scene of DeRecha badgering Lefty to keep unpacking the damn crates that don’t exist. That’s fine as far as that goes – but it does make for a rather humdrum affair when DeRecha yet again demands that Lefty unpack yet another item. We got the point.

That the play itself is at fault is perhaps proven by the fact that when the play succeeded, the actors shone in kind. As the urgency of their madness grew and their delusions overpowered their respective realities, Hartung and Soni began to harmonize on the stage, the dialogue hitherto forced and stilted melting into fluidity and naturalness, until I found myself, too, suspending disbelief as I watched two men gone mad cavort about the stage with imaginary weapons and camping gear atop a fantastical Himalayan mountain.

But overall, I believe that Arkin’s play has a fatal flaw that no amount of quality production and enthusiastic acting could ameliorate: it is, when all’s said and done, a gimmick – and a long one, at that. How often can one chuckle appreciatively at two men pretending to unpack an imaginary crate? Not often, if at all. Even as reality and unreality blended together, I got the distinct impression of being led around by the nose: We all of us knew where this was going and what the point was.

In the end, I couldn’t help but feel that I was watching Arkin engage in a self-gratifying mental exercise for its own sake, the conclusion of which is entirely predictable and the way there unnecessarily long, circuitous, and well-trodden.

That being said, Soni and Hartung, under the tasteful direction of Emily Edwards, did what they could be expected to do and more: By the end of the play the two actors had succeeded in creating a more or less convincing relationship between characters that is at once controlled by forces outside of their control and defined by their own delusions – even when the dialogue tried its best to frustrate the actors in that pursuit. It is worth seeing for that reason alone.


vickie davenport cropped

Review by Robert Gulack

In the same way that two great storms, intersecting on the ocean, can create a single storm front of unparalleled destructiveness, two negative influences have intersected in the contemporary musical theater, creating a unified destructive front that has virtually obliterated the Broadway musical as an art form.

The first destructive influence is the arrival of the jukebox musical as one of the basic models for a Broadway show. Songs that were never meant to do anything more than sell, over and over, the same simplistic message for two and a half minutes of radio time (“My girlfriend’s really great/She’s really boss/I dig her so”) now have to be staged as though they were musical numbers intended for actors.

The second destructive influence is the arrival of the other current basic model for a Broadway show — the musical for which new songs have been created based on the assumption that the job of a musical number is to say something terribly obvious over and over again, with increasing volume, until (it is assumed) the audience is on its feet, screaming with delight. Thus we have musicals in which the chorus chants the exactly the same message for five or six minutes (“We’re really angry men!/We’ll say it again and again!/We’re really angry and we’ve not much more to say!/That’s us, the really angry guys!”).

What the two models share is their reliance upon exactly the same thing being communicated over and over. This is (not to mince words) exactly the opposite of what a musical number must be in order to do its work. The basic commonsense of the subject is that a musical number, in a musical, is a theatrical scene; and, like any other theatrical scene, depicts how human understanding and human emotional responses change over a carefully selected period of time, in response to what’s happening in the plot, and in the service of what is being communicated as the theme. The job of theater language, whether spoken or sung, whether rhymed or not, is to bring home to us, in a way that seems real, how people are first one thing, and then (often, a split second later) a completely different thing. Likewise, the job of theater melody and harmony is to show how people vary over time, not to present people as perfectly repetitive machines. Indeed, if we were to meet an actual person who spoke to us in a manner anything like the typical song in a modern musical, we would shortly form the impression that he was an incredible bore; and then, a few minutes later, reach the conclusion that he was suffering from a severe mental illness. Anyone who really has only one thought on his mind desperately needs medication.

Weill and Brel: Neglected Masters

In this terribly impoverished period for musical theater, in which (leaving artists such as Sondheim and Finn to one side) the most obvious requirements of the art form are consistently overlooked, the works of Kurt Weill and Jacques Brel shine as a burning beacon in the night and sound like a trumpet calling us on to victory, teaching all who will lend an ear the right way to do this stuff. That’s why it was so important to hear Vickie Phillips bring her presentation of Weill and Brel material (A CAROUSEL OF COLORS WITH BREL, WEILL AND AZNAVOUR) to the Midtown International Theatre Festival on November 8. Phillips, who studied with Elly Stone (one of the key artists involved in introducing Brel to American audiences), understands that every Brel song is a one-act play, in which the character singing undergoes continual development, and in which any given sentence may work its way through three specific and completely different emotions. The fictional characters who sing Brel’s songs are as fully realized as the characters in a fine novel. Brel, as Phillips insightfully reminded her audience, consciously sought to stay in rapport with the most frustrating aspects of our world. For this reason, Brel’s people live, just as the rest of us must, in a world in which the unexpected good and the unexpected bad creep up on you, and force you to respond to them, moment by moment.

At any given instant, a Brel character is singing to us of the very latest thing that happens to have crossed his mind. The audience senses and appreciates the person behind these various moments. We get to know each of Brel’s people over time, as we would get to know a friend. Yes, this kind of songwriting requires more talent than simply stating, over and over again, that you’re angry or in love. Furthermore, very few of us, no matter how hard we try, will ever be able to create this kind of musical theater magic at anywhere near Brel’s level. But it can’t hurt us to aspire to this kind of artistic excellence.

An Evening of Masterpieces

Certainly, in her Nov. 8 presentation, Phillips chose some of Brel’s most original and moving work to showcase Phillip’s pleasing soprano and boundless energy. “My Childhood”, for example, was featured in the middle of the program. Brel’s favorite of his own songs, it combines an elegiac melody with a varied flow of scenes from the life of a growing child, and creates the overpowering impression that we have shared a decade of someone’s life in a few minutes. Phillips was similarly moving in such wonderful Brel ballads as “I Loved” and “Marieke”. She was accompanied by Gerry Dieffenbach at the piano, and some of the most memorable musical moments were when Dieffenbach, who has a handsome and gentle voice, sang either harmonies or counterpoints with Phillips, in numbers such as Brel’s “Carousel” and, in the tear-jerking finale of this program, Brel’s “If We Only Have Love”. One of the most powerful songs ever created, “If We Only Have Love” stands as a universal anthem for global hope, a sermon that, we can only pray, will someday be listened to by the entire human race.

The first half of the program featured a Kurt Weill medley, focussing primarily on Weill’s work for the American theater. It was an effective reminder of Weill’s brilliant and original use of harmony and melody as a way of conveying the manner in which emotions were evolving over time in the character singing each song. Phillips and Deiffenbach also presented three numbers by Charles Aznavour, which, though lovely, could not be compared to the quality of Brel and Weill numbers.

A CAROUSEL OF COLORS WITH BREL, WEILL and AZNAVOUR, with Vickie Phillips; Musical Director, Gerry Dieffenbach; presented as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival.

ROBERT GULACK holds an MFA in Playwriting from the Yale School of Drama, where he studied with Mamet and Kopit. He is the author of numerous plays seen in NYC, including CHURCHILL IN ATHENS, SIX HUSBANDS OF ELIZABETH THE QUEEN, and the award-winning ONE THOUSAND AND ONE.

Leigh Curran rises in WHY WATER FALLS

Review by Amy M. Frateo

Leigh Curran’s WHY WATER FALLS is one of those rare moments on stage where you feel as if the performer is talking right to you. That’s the level of honesty and power she gave to every one of the 90 minutes she stood on stage all alone. Well, not really alone.

l The play opens with the barefoot androgynous author grumbling over a quick writing assignment on a personal topic she has agreed to undertake as a favor to a friend. In short order, this frustration of Leigh’s opens the door to a series of self-discoveries laid before a very appreciative audience (many talked back to her, even answering her rhetorical questions).

At the play’s foundation is the question Leigh seems plagued with… children … to have or have not. Leigh chose to have not.

The play then whisks us into a world of twos. Two husbands – each with a pregnancy and subsequent abortion; two characters – both girls – created for Leigh’s novel but quickly we see they are there as the personification of her aborted children; her dual career as an actress and writer happens on two coasts; even Leigh’s sexuality is in twos – as she matter-of-factly discusses her bi-sexuality.

images Leigh Curran – simply put – is a powerhouse on the authentic off-off Broadway stage at the 13th Street Playhouse. The wordiness of her play is never a problem with Leigh’s great talent at weaving back and forth between playing herself and playing her two characters. She weaves her resume pictures and even anecdotes about her career as a teaching artist in deftly. In the hands of a lesser talent the second half might sound like a commercial but in the hands and voice of this master storyteller, it is an exciting plot development – and even twist – with an amusing story of a nasty student who saves the day.

Couple this really enthralling piece with the surroundings – the authenticity of the venerable 13th Street Playhouse – you walk out on to the street feeling like you attended a powerful passionate sermon about life and how to live it.

The press materials indicate a high in standards at the 13th Street Playhouse. Plays like WHY WATER FALLS and players like Leigh Curran prove that a true statement.

Why Water Falls runs through November 12 – a worthy trip – then stay for one the late night programs.