MAC production is great, but to what end?

By Ben Nyberg

The second half of the 2012-2013 Manhattan Arts Center Theatre season got under way this past weekend with the opening of a two-week run in the MAC’s Grosh Performance Hall of John Guare’s 1966 “protest” play, The House of Blue Leaves. Final week showings, February 28 - March 2 evenings and March 3 afternoon.

First off, I have to say I’ve seldom seen a cast more committed to providing the strongest possible effort in mutual support of their shared project than this band of brothers (and sisters!).

Jason Roberts’s Artie keeps the force of his frustration in check, the bubble of his misplaced optimism inflated and his hyper-dysfunctional extended family (and himself) from collapsing in disarray nearly all the way to the end. Courtney Beach as Artie’s delusional wife Bananas finds a path through the thickness of her mental fog to show us that she’s the least crippled in the zoo of crazies she’d caged among.

Artie’s self-absorbed motormouth of a mistress Bunny, as portrayed by BeckiJo Neill, is a bright and shiny full-length portrait of toxic opportunism in action. Jacob Belden is truly riveting in his jumpy, madcap rendering of Artie’s ready-rationalizing. devil-son Ronnie.

Craig Poe sketches the hypocritical celebrity persona of bigshot Hollywood director Billy wailing with effusive emotion and spouting empty words of wisdom. Tiffany Dozier brings sinuous charm to the deaf and smiling bewilderment of “starlet” Corrinna. And each of the three adventurous nuns, Penny Cullers, Katie Sigman, and Faith Janicki, exhibits her own set of defining quirks.

Steve Galitzer’s set is exceptional in both design and construction, the sound is clean and focused, lighting “spot on,” period costumes fashionably ’65. And Director Brent Sigman does his best to steer the show through to its ambiguous termination.

Yet despite so impressive an array of talent I nevertheless find I have a serious problem in assessing the effectiveness of the resulting collaboration. Namely, I can’t really figure out what it’s all supposed to amount to.

Set in 1965 Queens, much in its topical landscape and many of its contemporary references are dated. Of course the bulk of dramas we value most are even older and we manage to compensate for differences between our times and theirs.

But we need to feel ourselves firmly invested in some world or another, however absurd or abstract, the bedrock of which place derives largely from the substantiality of the people that occupy it.

Their vitality in turn comes from having enough consistent behavioral patterns and distinctive personal values to give them recognizable shape and intelligible purpose enough to assure us that their motives are significant and consequential.

Sadly, for all the sound and fury, all the possible symbolic or subtextual potential to be extracted from the dark farce of the ragged storyline, all the expressed aspirations and constrained hopes, clashes and crashes, mini-monologues and poetic rhapsodies, no unifying argument rises from the smoke of this struggle to give its action meaning.

So we’re left feeling we’ve been taken for a ride, driven through a funhouse-style nightmare of grotesque invention, full of random violence, anger and distress, only to be crudely flipped off at the end for having ventured to find a message in nonsense. As raw noise is not music, so staged chaos, however bravely staged, is not commentary.

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