All Tomorrow’s Parties

Dark poetry, dark secrets, and dark cafés

This theater season has been filled with a lot of reactive leftist political theater, which has all begun to take on the taint of preaching to the choir. People pay to see their views validated and their emotions gratified. The right has Fox News, but the left is relegated to playing for a few hundred people in a self-selecting, high priced theater. While the right lulls the masses with the egregious cant of strident commentary, the left can’t achieve critical mass. Remember, the point of telling people what they want to hear is to sedate them into inaction; so if you can make people believe in WMD, they won’t protest an invasion. It’s frustrating, but the left has only itself to blame for not learning—and playing—the game.

Perhaps, David Hare could be recruited to help. He’s already starting with his marvelous play “Stuff Happens” now at the Public. Will it inspire action? Probably not, but at least it is the stuff of art that offers a brief respite from the incessant insanity being spun at us and contextualizes the insanity, manipulation, and egomania that has cost more than 2,000 lives of Americans and countless Iraqis.

What Hare has done is cast the events leading up to the Iraq invasion as a history play, inter-cutting recent events and actual words of the characters with his always inspiring ability to juxtapose delusion and reality. (“Plenty” is still one of the most powerful plays of the last century to my mind for this.)

“Stuff Happens” has the scope and energy of Shakespeare’s history plays. Using their own words and artfully orchestrated events, it tells the tale of a group of repellant people who fashion themselves as Henry V—the warrior king who whipped his nation into a great victory on the force of words and belief. The brilliance of Hare’s play is the darkly poetic structure that shows that they are not taking Agincourt against all odds. We are actually in the world of Henry VI, in which a young, feckless, and inexperienced king loses all by his impractical faith and a bevy of craven advisors. Hare casts Colin Powell, beautifully played by Peter Francis James, as the tragic figure in this—the voice of reason in a world spinning out of control.

Daniel Sullivan’s direction is stellar in its intensity, and the ensemble is amazing. Robert Sella, in particular as Dominique de Villepin, is breathtaking. Doubtful that the virtues of this play will, as the malevolent Mordred in “Camelot” says, have any larger social effect at “un-statusing my quo,” but the sheer artistry of this piece at least lets us know who the crazy people are in this mess.

Dark secrets abound in the dismal comedy “Festen” now at the Music Box. It comes to New York on a wave of publicity, but don’t buy the hype. A Danish family gathers to celebrate the patriarch’s birthday and dark secrets are revealed. Chaos ensues. Perhaps if this weren’t the stuff of Dr. Phil or Oprah, it would be more engaging. If the play went somewhere beyond something’s rotten in the state of Daddy’s Denmark country house and everyone is in denial, it would be more satisfying as theater. As the family is Hamletting it up with childhood trauma and resentment as the ghosts of the past keep showing up. The audience, on the other hand, simply yawns.

Yes, the fractured narrative is intriguing. Yes, the glorified black box in which this is staged is artful. Yes, the cast is peopled with TV stars, though Michael Hayden gives the best performance as the tortured Christian who was raped by his father—oops, I gave away the secret! But at the end of the day this is just another navel-gazing retelling of confronting Mom and Dad with how childhood horrors have ruined life. And once the fights start, it’s dissolves into “Jerry Springer” in dinner clothes.

It’s a far cry from the trailer park, but I guess all unhappy families are alike after all.

Depression, existentialism in a cloud of Gauloises, and guttural expressions of self-pity. That’s pretty much how I first thought of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” when I saw it as a very young man.

With the poignant and engaging revival at the Zipper, I’ve learned that my parents should probably have taken me to see something else, though there will be no “Festen”-like confrontations next time I’m home.

The song cycle takes Brel’s prolific work and boils it down to about 20 numbers that show his emotional and musical range. It is decidedly French. The highs border on the manic, the lows are quite bleak, but through it all there is an unmistakable spirit and adult sensibility that takes life on its own terms and confronts it with an honesty that gives actor/singers something to really sink their teeth into as they sing of love, live, anguish, angst—the very things lampooned in “Nine.”

In the compelling and artful production staged by Gordon Greenberg features four very talented singers. Robert Cuccioli is in fine voice and has a terrific range. Gay Marshall brings the kind of musical hall weltschmerz to her role and has amazing vocal technique. Natascia Diaz is lovely in all she does, and Rodney Hicks gives a mostly solid performance, though he sometimes seems out of control.

Take the kids to “Beauty and the Beast,” but if you’re up for something sophisticated and adult, “Jacques Brel” may be just the ticket.

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