I had seen and liked Julia Cho’s The Piano Teacher downtown several years ago, so her new play, The Language Archives, was something I didn’t want to miss. Since words no longer come trippingly off my tongue when I need them, the whole idea of how we use language to indicate meaning was something I could relate to. The play turns out to have been a perfectly acceptable piece of frill, but nothing that could help me with finding the right words when I need them. There’s a linguist, George, in charge of a library for dead languages, and an expert in Esperanto, the artificial language designed to facilitate communication between all peoples. But still – he can’t communicate to the wife he loves (who suddenly ups and leaves him to open a bakery), and he can’t even read the not-so-subtle seductive body language of his infatuated assistant. Get it? There are no words in any language that can fully express the range of human feeling. That’s about it. There are some good laughs, a subplot or two, some great one-liners, and enough irony to satisfy and then some. And the staging was just enough removed from realism to differentiate it from the soaps. It played at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater, and closed just days after I saw it on December 14. Plays like this can often have much to recommend for production in my local community, but I couldn’t get too excited by The Language Archives. I didn’t regret it, but neither did I take much away from it.
The other chance I took was on Neil LaBute’s new play, Break of Noon, another one scheduled to close soon after my visit. The playwright has a growing reputation as a talented and reasonably cynical bad-boy writer. He has gained some notoriety with his Fat Pig and In the Company of Men, among others. I thought I should know more about him. And the premise sounded intriguing: The lone survivor of a massacre that saw 37 of his office mates murdered, John Smith (What else?) escaped, he says, because the voice of God personally and specifically directed him not to move. So there are all kinds of exciting possibilities here, right? … to do with religion and cultism, and why society is taking such a violent turn, and the evil in men, and most of all, the “Why me?” question. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear any of these themes explored in any depth. The big question of the play seemed merely to ask, “Is Smith lying, or did God really speak to him?” … and incidentally “What are the implications of that for the rest of us?” I’m sure LaBute fully intended for me to be unsure whether to take him seriously or to treat the play as a serious religious rant. There was an initial descriptive version of the tragedy in a long and somewhat fascinating monologue at the opening of the play. I understand long monologues are a LaBute trademark. He’s probably great for actor audition pieces. But then the play seemed to go downhill from there, as we become more and more aware of Smith’s own heartlessness and dispassion. He’s not a man I cared very much about. There’s kind of a neat theatrical twist at the end (Spoiler alert!), when in another monologue (longer), he reveals himself as the inhumane person most responsible for bringing about the deadly tragedy, describes the heretofore unmentioned direct intervention by God that saved him, and then levitates into the air with his arms spread wide. Now what were we to think of that? I found it laughable, appropriately or not. But still – Is Labute serious? Is this meant to be some kind of seriously Christian parable, a throw-back to the days he spent as a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints? Or is it yet another magic trick, a deliberate illusion to persuade the masses of the out-and-out lie that God has spoken to him and that he is consequently a new Messiah? Or finally, and more in keeping with his misanthropic and misogenistic reputation, is it just LaBute’s cynical indictment of how a sick society, including especially gullible women, can so easily latch onto the most illogical self-delusions, and justify our sins by pretending we’re in pursuit of good in the world? I lean toward the latter. But either way, bottom line: John Smith has absolutely nothing to contribute to society or to our search for meaning in the world. It’s the kind of play we might like to argue over at a cocktail party, but the conversation wouldn’t last beyond the first drink. It didn’t convince me that LaBute has much to offer either. I sympathize with him. It’s really hard to write insightfully about a character who has no insight, sensitivity, or likeability. But Break of Noon simply doesn’t dig deep enough to be all that interesting or challenging. David Duchovny, of TV’s X-Files fame, is the obligatory Hollywood presence in his very first stage role. He didn’t do much to bring excitement to the role of John Smith, but how the hell would you do that anyway when the man you play must remain dispassionate and heartless?
In my own quest for new off-beat plays on these binge trips, I don’t necessarily pick the best theatre, whether by accident or intention. These two certainly weren’t, by any means, although I wasn’t entirely dissatisfied with them. Both were noble efforts, with a point of view, both entertaining and searching, both worthy of an audience to either like or dislike. That’s more than can be said for much of what we see in theatre these days. It must be acknowledged that it’s damned hard to make a really “good” play. My biggest regret here, of course, is for the ones I left behind that I imagine to have been far more exciting: Among them were the new La Cage aux Folles, Laura Linney in Time Stands Still, Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, A Free Man of Color, the widely praised Beckett Plays, Ibsen’s rarely seen Rosmersholm (a ticket I gave up to see Brief Encounter), and Mark Rylance and David Hyde Pierce in La Bête – most of which are now closed or soon to be closing. Then there’s the frustration of things I really wanted to see that had already closed just before I got there (Middletown, and Cherry Jones in Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession), or were about to open after I left (The Importance of Being Ernest, That Championship Season, and War Horse). The nice thing about New York: There is always something to see that can’t be missed, but will be. And there is always the next time.