Review of The Man Who Appear**ed(playing at the Theater for the New City, Thursday through Sunday, Feb. 28 to March 9, 2008)
Putting pretentious claims aside, I don’t think there has ever been a literary Cubist. Gertrude Stein is the writer most often denominated one, but this was more because she was in the same milieu, indeed, helped support the milieu in Paris, shared by Picasso, Braque and others in the school, than because she adopted a similar stance in prose. I bring this up because a new play, The Man Who Appear**ed, by Gary Brackett, Martin Reckhaus and Jessica Slote, does recapture the essence of that art movement: its energetic shuffling around of a pulverized reality. To follow the interpretation of art critic John Berger, the Cubists’ re-viewing of café tables, people and guitars had nothing to do with seeing their surroundings as many-sided and fluidly assembled (although this is the reading the art is normally given). For Berger, the crucial fact is that this art movement arose in a period (1908-1911) when a heavy tide of socialist and anarchist protests, uprisings and propaganda flowed through society, casting doubt on the longevity of the reigning capitalism. Ergo, Cubist painting showed a scene that was unstable because of the future. The painters thought it was possible business civilization was on the verge of disintegration, and that it would be replaced by council communism or cooperative anarchism. Nothing in the present, they thought, was anything but an outline, since its anchor points were about to give way. Brackett/Reckhaus/Slote have applied a parallel Cubist view to a straightforward short story by Brazilian writer Clarisse Lispector (possibly because they share with the Cubists a sense of the fragility of contemporary social arrangements). They have applied it with this difference: Where the painters presented an individual object as a set made up of itself seen from different perspectives and in varied relations to other objects, all layered and collaged together, The Man achieves a similar effect by taking a single event -- the chance meeting of old friends (one of whom, the woman, has become a successful writer, and the other, the man, a derelict) -- and makes this the plot of a film being made. From this vantage, individual moments between the characters can be done more than once (to get them right), put in a rearranged sequence (since films are generally shot out of chronological order) and discussed by the actors (masks down) as they consider different ways of portrayal. Such a basis for the unfolding tale makes for a complex, witty interplay of reality and illusion. In the role of a friend (Slote) tells the woman (Sheila Dabney) she should have acted differently in her encounter with the man (John Kohan). Later Slote (out of role) advises her fellow actor, Kohan, on a different way he might play his role in relation to Dabney. Thus, Slote’s two parts (playing an actress and that actress in part) humorously intertwine. But to be entranced by these interlocking levels would be to miss the deeper-lying, more painful truths at the heart of the play. If in Cubism the whole object world is shattered to show its possibly temporary existence, these writers suggest that human connections in our time are so hollow and shallow that they can only contain passion and validity if they are re-imagined (taken apart analytically, that is, shattered) and re-lived. The setup leading to this conclusion occurs in the first, breathtaking scene. The audience is not facing a stage but a wall in which there are two small windows, one larger one, a door and a screen for projections. Dabney comes through the audience, goes in the door, and takes a chair, back to us, inside the bigger window. She is on a riser. Below her we see an empty space and, further upstage, a row of chairs. Although this is not the case, at this juncture, it seems as if we are about to view a drama over her shoulder. So, the feeling, right off the bat, is spooky, uncanny, suggesting the spectators will experience the whole play at second remove. To repeat, then, the play’s point, that nowadays rich emotional ties can only be created through very thick mediations, is established here. It’s an idea that can be taken either negatively (underlining the insufficiency of our humanity) or positively (that this way forward can lead to a new level of experience). In any case, three scenes of magnificent power graphically show what so far might seem a rather abstract concept.
- Dabney and Kohan sit closely together (in character) as she tries to convince him to regenerate himself. He looks listless and diffident while her face is filled with regret, compassion and concern. Here’s the surprise. Kohan faces the audience through the window. Dabney is totally turned away, facing the film’s camerawoman Asoka Esoruosa. Dabney’s face is seen projected on the wall screen, etched with feeling but flattened, mediated.
- Slote with a seen-it-all, deadpan voice tells Kohan how she thinks he should play a part of the dialogue. Suddenly, she goes into character, his character, and her voice and face ignite with heart-wrenching unhappiness. Reenactment complete, she goes back to Buster Keaton.
- In a tour de force à deux, Dabney and Kohan act out the scene where the derelict breaks down under the touch of his ex-friend’s solace. They do the scene with riveting power. It takes one’s breath away.
The director is not satisfied. Play it again. Astoundingly, with a reinterpretation of gestures, the second run-through is even more electrifying. Again, not satisfied. Act it again. The third, and last, version staples you to your seat with the raw honesty of the emotion. Yet, unsettling enough, this sequence hints that people only reach the emotional truth of their situations through repetition (something not very viable in daily life) and, moreover, more startlingly, a person seems more likely to sound her or his own depths in playing a (contrived) role not in everyday interactions. I should say, by the way, about this pitiless director, masterly acted by Reckhaus, that he is the only person on stage who seems carried away and convincing in everything he says – that is, he never adopts the deadpan stance. But, here’s the rub. His words are almost never heard. He is talking under others or whispering instructions, so his feelings only appear in his gestures and on his expressive face. Perhaps, I’ve already said in so many words that the set is off-putting but stunning; the lighting and screen insets well done, and the acting on-key, nuanced and strong. After all, only acting of such trenchancy could balance the intellectual complexity of this rethinking of the Cubist figuration.