Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Tales of an Urban Indian


Written and Performed by Darrell Dennis. Directed by Herbie Barnes. At The Public Theater. (CLOSED)

While no one hates Darrell Dennis' semi-autobiographical solo show about Native American identity and addiction, critics are generally lukewarm on the script (which some find clichd, overstuffed and/or underdeveloped) or on Dennis' performance (which some feel drifts too easily into stand-up comedy shtick). The two exceptions are the AP and the NYPost's Frank Scheck, who appreciate both. All the critics profess to be happy for the chance to see a show written from a Native American perspective, given the dearth of this viewpoint on American stages.

NYPost B+
(Frank Scheck) The actor/playwright is also a stand-up comedian and Second City veteran, so it's no surprise that his show is packed with plenty of laughs. At times, he overdoes the shtick, indulging in such less-than-effective routines as a play-by-play description of his drunkenness and a conversation with a God who talks like Jackie Mason. At its best, the evening is filled with insightful observations about the Indian experience, such as Dennis' rapturous (and funny) description of the "Redskin Renaissance" that permeated pop culture in the 1990s thanks to, among other things, the success of "Dances With Wolves."

NYTheatre B+
(Martin Denton) The stories that Simon tells us are harrowing and sad. Dennis is a canny playwright, though, and he leavens the misfortune that permeates his tale with humor and grand inventiveness. Not only does Dennis play the characters who figure in the narrative—everyone from Simon's wise old Indian grandma to his best friends on the Reserve (gluttonous Nick and sensitive Daniel) to a director on a film where adult Simon is typecast as, guess what, an Indian; he also takes us inside the hearts and minds of these people using all manner of meta-theatrical devices and pop cultural referents. Tales of an Urban Indian is thus blessedly cliche-free in its presentation, which I think helps make it even more accessible than it might be, so that an audience of people unfamiliar with the conditions of life for an Indian in a place like Coyote Lake (or a place like Vancouver) can achieve a level of empathy they probably didn't expect when they arrived at the theatre.

Associated Press B
Unfortunately, the play descends too quickly into an all-too-common, cautionary tale of alcoholism and drug abuse. It's not that the main character isn't easy to sympathize with or that his vices aren't relevant to the rest of the play. The problem is his tangle with addiction is predictably less interesting than everything that preceded it. His slow descent to rock-bottom occupies too much of the play, which is nearly two hours with no intermission. Far more compelling, for instance, is his depiction of the heavy-handed Christian education he was forced to endure, like many other Canadian Indian children of his generation. There is also a poignant portrayal of Simon's grandmother, who represents his ties to native culture and tradition.

Backstage B-
(Ron Cohen) Dennis is an engaging performer, and his skill as an actor, under Herbie Barnes' direction, is well-demonstrated, but the first-person narrative he delivers as Simon rarely achieves the level of strength it does in its closing moment. The story is desultory, a welter of too much incident from early childhood onward. Numerous characters come and go, and while Dennis makes them distinctive, they're seldom developed enough to become very compelling.

NYTimes C+
(Jason Zinoman) Perfectly affable... Tales of an Urban Indian, which is being revived as part of the Public Lab series, doesn’t belittle or romanticize, but it still seems as formulaic as any Hollywood movie, a standard-issue coming-of-age tale about early romantic angst, surviving tragedy, and the thorny question of assimilation. Mr. Dennis adopts an ingratiating persona, cracking jokes at his own expense and turning church into a Fosse-like musical theater number. The pacing and tone often resemble those of a comedy club act. But that’s what makes Mr. Dennis a somewhat strange critic of cultural stereotyping. Whites here are distant and condescending. West Coasters are laid back and stoned. And when he anthropomorphizes the cockroaches in his apartment, they speak in a Mexican accent. It’s telling that when he sees God in an epiphany, it’s Jackie Mason.

Time Out NY C+
(Adam Feldman) The latter part of Tales morphs into a straightforward recovery drama, with side trips for more of Dennis’s amiable if stale comedy stylings. Still, though the routine contours of the journey may have obscured it, by show’s end the terrain Dennis has covered, from reservation lakeside to junkie alley, feels vast, unfamiliar, and shaming.

TheaterMania C
(Dan Bacalzo)
There are moments in the show that are quite funny, and I particularly enjoyed Simon's excuse to a white teacher about why he didn't have his homework, which he delivers in an amusing parody of a stoic Indian. There are also moments that effectively convey the gravity of the tale, for example, Simon's observation that despite a rather rocky descent into a netherworld of addiction that threatens to destroy his life, "only rehab smelled like failure." Sadly, Dennis tries too hard in other parts of the performance, particularly a misguided song and dance number that doesn't quite land. He also tends too push too hard, talking at the audience rather than establishing a more natural rapport with them. In terms of playwriting, the story seems overloaded with melodrama.

TalkinBroadway C-
(Matthew Murray) Vaulting in style between serious drama and stand-up comedy as blithely as it does locations between reservations and Vancouver, Dennis’s play suffers from the same affliction his character, Simon Douglas, and other Natives face in the modern world: a lack of an identifiable identity... Simon’s story is frequently compelling, and if Dennis is not skilled enough a voice artist to sell the many impressions he attempts, he’s a charismatic and energetic narrator of Simon’s myriad misfortunes. But as a playwright, he fails at what would seem to be the play’s most important task: connecting Simon’s disintegration with that of his own heritage and beliefs. This is a gentle undercurrent throughout, represented primarily by Dennis’s placing stones downstage to represent those around Simon who have died, but it’s scarcely addressed directly until the play’s waning seconds.

NYP B+ 11; NYTR B+ 11; AP B 10; BS B- 9; NYT C+ 8; TONY C+ 8;TM C 7; TB C- 6. TOTAL = 70/8 = 8.75 (B-)

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