For the life of me, why the Pershing Square Signature Center decided to put on The Signature Plays is beyond me. They are so grotesque, demented, repetitious and so beyond boring at times, I felt like I was trapped in hell. Had I not been a critic I would have left. Let me start off with the direction by Lila Neugebauer, who believes everything should be done in slow motion with eternal pauses. For a show that runs over two hours with a pause and a intermission, without the pauses and slow motion reaches you could have cut this show by an hour. Yes, she gets visuals but one trick pony is enough!
We get not one but three selections Edward Albee’s The Sandbox (1959), María Irene Fornés’s Drowning (1986) and Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro (1969).
The only one of these plays I knew was Albee’s, The Sandbox. This 20-minute work begins on a sunny beach where a handsome muscled man (Ryan-James Hatanaka) is working out. Enter Mommy (Alison Fraser) and Daddy (Frank Wood), who bring 86-year-old Grandma (Phyllis Somerville) and deposits her in a sandbox, while a hired cellist (Melody Giron) plays solemn music. As nighttime approaches so does death. This is an absurdist play on the way we treat the elderly, on society as a whole. Performed with steely acidly Fraiser is perfect adding witty moments to this role. Mr. Wood is given nothing to do and this wonderful actor is wasted. Mr. Hatanaka is perfect as a bumbling actor who is in reality the Angel of Death and Ms. Somerville not only looks great in a bathing suit but adds a warmth and a serenity to the passing of life.
Next is a 9 minute pause thats seems like forever, until we get to Ms. Fornés’s Drowning. Here two actors are dressed like Mr Potato Head. Sitting in what looks like a hospital cafeteria, Pea (Mikéah Ernest Jennings) discovers a newspaper and falls for a picture of a woman he sees. His companion Roe (Sahr Ngaujah) explains how a snowman and human are different. it seems they are waiting for another man Stephen (Mr. Wood) who looks like them but paler and says nothing. In the end the woman rejects Pea, who drowns with sorrow. What this play is suppose to represent is beyond me. It is neither funny or touching because of course a women in a paper would not be interested in somebody like this. 20 minutes of my life I will never get back.
The last piece though visually stunning thanks to sets by Mimi Lien, lights by mark Barton and costumes by Kaye Voyce was the clincher on why would you do this to an audience? Especially the audience that attends the Signature? The plot concerns Negro-Sarah (Crystal Dickinson) who lives in New York City and her internal struggle with racial identity. She spends a great deal of time grappling with her feelings about her mixed ancestry. She worships her white mother (Pia Glenn) who stalks the stage like Ophelia and despises her black missionary father. In dealing with her mental battle, Queen Victoria (April Matthis), the Duchess of Hapsburg (January LaVoy), Patrice Lumumba (Mr. Ngaujah), and Jesus Christ (Mr. Jennings) haunt the stage. She is married to a Jewish caucasian husband (Nicholas Bruder) and her landlady (Ms. Fraser) pops in to add her two cents. The story is repeated and repeated and repeated by Sarah and the ghosts until the truth comes out. Brandon Wolcott sound is like a fog horn going off and the music and the level of yelling had me putting my fingers in my ears to drown out the annoyance. In the end all you wanted to do was escape this hell that seemed never ending.
The cast and the design team are all first rate but again my question here is who wants to see this? My audience was all over 50 and nobody was thrilled to be there. Many left and the ones who stayed were so relieved to leave. I listened to the conversations as I was leaving the theatre an not one was positive. Despite the rain and the storm outside everybody was happier to be caught in the torrential down pour than to spend one more minute inside that theatre.
The Signature Plays: Pershing Square Signature Center