Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Singing Forest


By Craig Lucas. Directed by Mark Wing-Davey. Public Theater. (CLOSED)

The reviews of The Singing Forest are almost as confusing as the play seems to be. (The plot as laid out in the reviews is too complicated to go into in this short space.) It seems that critics respect Craig Lucas too much to slam his play (except for John Simon, who gives the play zero stars), so they get around it by applauding his efforts. They do say the play, referred to in three reviews as "overcaffeinated," is too long and attempts too much, so never really reaches any satisfying conclusions.'s Stan Richardson disagrees, writing, "When you see it—and I highly recommend that you do—allow yourself to get lost a bit, relish the complexity, be thankful that questions come up and that you don't know what will happen next." Critics are also kind to the actors, especially Olympia Dukakis and Jonathan Groff, who they say do the most they can with the material. A+
(Stan Richardson) Lucas needs every moment of his three acts to show you how this fragmented family—and certain of their lovers and colleagues and patients—end up in Loë's Klimt-cluttered apartment. I find the twists and turns nothing short of exhilarating, and many of the performances are delightful, such as Mark Blum as the conniving boob Oliver, and Jonathan Groff (who, after his exquisite turn in Prayer for My Enemy this past fall, is becoming a definitive interpreter of Lucas's work) as Gray, a non-inward-looking young actor who gets caught up in this mess in several ways that I cannot possibly describe here. Also noteworthy are John Gromada's sensitive sound design and haunting original music, and John McDermott's clever and magnificent set, both of which corporealize an entirely captivating world that Mark Wing-Davey and his actors have conjured from Craig Lucas's fascinating new play.

Backstage A
(Erik Haagensen) "There are no coincidences" is not just the mantra of Craig Lucas' dense and deeply felt The Singing Forest; it's also the three-act play's organizing structural principle. That leads to one of the most unusual instances I've seen of dramatizing theme through form. The play is a bracing, unflinching attempt to accept that the damage human beings do to themselves and one another is often permanent and ever-present. Learning to live successfully with that and each other is the task we all face... Lucas initially lets his audience piece together the characters' connections. Then the past breaks through, intermingling with the present as we learn the toll events have taken and watch everyone grapple with it. Act 2 climaxes with a sequence in which Lucas momentarily accelerates the play into farce as all the "coincidences" pile up, bringing everyone together. The switch in tone dramatizes the theme: Everyone arrives because of something he or she has done that then affects somebody else. No coincidences. The silliness of the sequence reflects the foolishness of the characters' belief in their autonomy. We are all connected.

NYMag A-
(Stephanie Zacharek) This is an ambitious, gangly work, spanning decades and exploring thorny questions about gay identity and even thornier ones about human identity. Sometimes you wish Lucas hadn't tried to pack so much in—he’s juggling so many ideas that some of them emerge only as murky, indistinct silhouettes. But director Mark Wing-Davey deftly guides us through the mishegoss, and in the end the expansiveness of the material works in its favor. Leave it to someone else to write small, intimate, tasteful plays about the complexity of relationships; Lucas prefers the crazy spectacle.

The Village Voice A-
(Michael Feingold) In this turmoil of interlocking stories, which regularly splurts up into either violent confrontations or door-slamming farcical mixups, the prevailing tone is, surprisingly, compassion. Lucas's underlying notion seems to be that, in a world as terror-filled as ours, everyone needs to be forgiven everything before it all becomes much worse. If this flies in the face of reason, it's a natural outgrowth of a narrative whose multiple strands variously rebuke common sense, history, and chronology. Like the sex-farce tone and the Holocaust subject matter, the play's ideas and its tactics simply don't merge. Yet their constant friction steadily produces dazzling showers of sparks, and director Mark Wing-Davey's devoted cast achieves some mighty effects while setting them alight. Dukakis, fiercely acerbic, rides commandingly over the action; Blum and Campbell, twin icons of epic haplessness, are especially moving. Best of all is Groff, who now perfectly incarnates the Craig Lucas hero: sweetly vulnerable yet indomitably determined, venturing bravely forth, wide-eyed with terrified wonder, into the crazy world that will force him to figure out who he is.

Associated Press B+
(Peter Santilli) This ambitious, three-act production, which opened Tuesday at off-Broadway's Public Theater, is difficult to pin down. It is part mistaken-identity farce, part family drama, part historical fiction, among a mix of other things. Lucas crams so much into the cerebral, cross-generational allegory, it seems scattered at times. Despite this minor hindrance, which actually adds an unexpected aesthetic, the play proves thoroughly provocative, thanks to a compelling story, a strong cast and novel stage direction.

Variety C
(Marilyn Stasio) The centerpiece of this modern-day fable is Loe Rieman (Olympia Dukakis), one of those quick-witted, sharp-tongued older women who navigate the city like they own it. Although nothing gets past them and nobody goes unnoticed, such women are largely invisible to the rest of the world... Loe is a marvelous character, and Dukakis is altogether splendid in the role; she plays Loe with an earthy goodness that conveys all of her wit and wisdom without masking any of her pain. The "singing forest" she carries in her head is made up of all mankind, voices raised in "cries of death, keening, loss, terror."... But in his determination to find farcical humor in one aspect of Loe's girlhood trauma -- her guilt over failing to defend her homosexual brother -- Lucas has concocted an elaborate subplot involving two gay shrinks (nice comedy chops from Mark Blum and Rob Campbell) lusting after the same straight patient. The situation is amusing enough on its own terms and rather sexy given the genuinely sweet appeal of Jonathan Groff ("Spring Awakening") as the prize they are fighting over.

CurtainUp C
(Elyse Sommer) Like the lives it depicts, The Singing Forest is messy, sprawling play. It's top heavy with credibility challenging coincidences and in need of trimming. But, while it's a play that will have you walking out a touch unsure whether you really loved and understood what you saw, you won't be bored watching it and you'll probably find yourself thinking about it after you leave. For one thing, attention must and will be paid, if only to figure what's going on and who's really infuriated with who, and why. Then there's Olympia Dukakis as the locus of the Rieman family's dysfunction. This is her most unique role since the TV mini-series Tales of the City. She may be the focal character, but this is an ensemble play and Dukakis is supported by eight eminently watchable actors, each of whom play two roles. That adds up to a total of seventeen intriguing personalities, which include Dr. Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna.

American Theater Web C-
(Andy Propst) The play's bifurcated nature is only exacerbated in Mark Wing-Davey's unevenly conceived staging. With the scenes in New York, there's an edgy, sort of over-caffeinated pacing to the production, but when the play shifts back in time, it seems almost like a set of theatrical brakes has been pulled, and the show jars into a slower, more dreamy realm, certainly appropriate for the action, but theatergoers experience a kind of whiplash nonetheless. And thus, despite some terrifically conceived performances – particularly from Groff and Dukakis – theatergoers watch "Forest" with interest and a bit of skepticism, but never find themselves pulled into the story emotionally. John McDermott's scenic design – a series of sliding coarse wooden panels that simultaneously bring to mind dingy New York apartments and perhaps German boxcars in the 1930s – proves consistently surprising, and can even become some what hauntingly beautiful under an assured lighting design from Japhy Weideman. Gabriel Berry's costumes capture character and period flair throughout, and ultimately, one can't help but watch in fascination wondering what will come next in either era. At the same time, though, one can't help wish that somehow the play, with its high-charged parallel plots, were somehow more emotionally involving.

The New York Times D+
(Charles Isherwood) Mr. Lucas, a wildly uneven playwright who inspires respect for the eclectic reach and emotional depth of his best work, has retooled the play somewhat since its debut four years ago at the Long Wharf Theater, in a production directed by Bartlett Sher. But the changes seem mostly cosmetic. The director of this staging, Mark Wing-Davey, brought out the emotional riches in a similarly complex but far better play by Mr. Lucas, “Small Tragedy,” which considered some of the same themes about the chains of pain that link people together. Here he mostly has to settle for arranging traffic patterns smoothly, and he does not always succeed even at that. (And I wish he’d sped by the lingering scene in which Ms. Dukakis, as the younger Loë, is raped by a Nazi.) Still, the cast members do what they can to humanize the characters, purportedly real people dropped into the machine of farce, scrabbling like hamsters in a maze... “There are no coincidences,” one of the overanalyzed characters says, by way of explaining the absurdity. But in art coincidence must be used sparingly. When indulged recklessly, it can only be called contrivance.

Time Out New York D+
(Adam Feldman) Craig Lucas's new play is in many ways a disaster, but so willful and ambitious a disaster that it commands your staggered respect. In nearly three hours, with two intermissions, Lucas takes Marx's maxim that history repeats itself first as history, and then as farce, and smooshes it into a strange, sticky ball.

New York Post D+
(Frank Scheck) If ambition counted for everything, Craig Lucas' supremely loopy "The Singing Forest" would be a masterpiece -- a nearly three-hour, genre-bending, time-jumping comedy/drama that mixes Nazi atrocities with boulevard farce. It's as if the playwright was suffering from a serious case of "Angels in America" envy.

Theatermania D+
(Dan Bacalzo) Unfortunately, Wing-Davey has not found the proper tonal balance to go easily from a scene in which a multitude of characters farcically hide out in bathrooms, closets, and trunks to one in which the gut-wrenching facts about Loë's past are revealed. It's also a little difficult to tease out what the playwright is attempting to say about the practice of psychoanalysis. With five practitioners of the discipline in the play -- including both Sigmund and Anna Freud -- it's not incidental, and yet, all of the 21st century analysts in the piece behave in such a horribly unprofessional manner that it's difficult to take any of them seriously. And while many of the characters are subject to analysis at some point or another, the results are presented as either insightful keys to a person's state of mind or mere comic fodder -- and in one instance towards the end of the play, Shar's summing up of what has just been revealed is meant to be both. John McDermott's cluttered and rather unattractive set does little to help smooth transitions and only barely suggests changes in location (and sometimes it doesn't even do that). This job falls more to Japhy Weideman's often moody lighting, which is effectively coupled with John Gromada's original music and sound design to create the proper atmosphere in key scenes.

Just Shows To Go You D+
(Patrick Lee) You sense that the dizzying swirl of interconnected characters and the overarching theme of identity are aiming for something larger, even epic, but the play’s moments remain small and isolated from one another: this is a play that adds up to less than the sum of even its best parts.

That Sounds Cool
(Aaron Riccio) "It's disgusting to use the Holocaust to distract from your own sins," shouts Laszlo (Randy Harrison), upset with his shrink-turned-lover, Oliver (Mark Blum). As it turns out, Oliver's finally being honest about his mother, Loë (Olympia Dukakis), and his billionaire nephew, Jules Ahmad (Louis Cancelmi), so he shouts back "Sometimes life just is preposterous, you know?" These two liberties end up forming the crux of Craig Lucas's latest play, The Singing Forest, a slovenly three-act play that aims to be about the farcical coincidences of serious drama but is instead a seriously inconsequential farcical drama... On the positive side of things, the cast is also swept up in this tide of performance, and director Mark Wing-Davey makes the most of the ridiculous to stage an amusing showdown in Staten Island. Characters hide in bathrooms, dressers, trunks, and under benches, brandishing guns and breaking down doors, though what this stands for or has to do with the overall theme of Freudian therapy (and the somewhat symbolic and only occasional use of Nazism to that end) is anyone's guess.

Theater News Online D+
(Matt Windman) It is unlikely that any director could have brought a sense of clarity to the play. While Mark Wing-Davey sincerely attempts to direct the ongoing flow of traffic on an ugly urban set, the production only feels powerful in a handful of short well-acted scenes. Dukakis excels at playing the protagonist, who is dry and witty but is also dealing with deep and uncomfortable emotional scars from her past. Groff, who is now appearing in his second Craig Lucas play this season, makes a firm distinction between his modern-day character, who is youthful and confused, and his historical counterpoint, who is unashamed of his sexuality and individuality. There is a good play somewhere inside The Singing Forest. The real question is whether Craig Lucas can find it.

The Daily News D
(Joe Dziemianowicz) One can imagine the better work that would have sprouted had the author pruned this three-act that strives to be serious and seriously funny and ends up missing both marks. The story begins in a pre-9/11 New York City and flashes back to 1930s Vienna and 1940 London. It follows three generations of a damaged clan and how unresolved wounds fester decades later. That's a worthwhile exploration, with some occasionally striking moments — including the title reference to a forest filled with the music of suffering voices. But it's all so convoluted, it taps your patience.

Talkin' Broadway D
(Matthew Murray) Lucas has locked onto an interesting underlying concept in comparing the horrors of Holocaust Europe with current America’s treatment of and approach toward homosexuality; given the ever-simmering issue of gay marriage, this sort of examination couldn’t be more timely. But he deals with it so obliquely and randomly that it never has the chance to cohere. By the time Lucas introduces a full second cast of characters from Loë’s youth to help develop the background of his plot, he’s already juggling so much that he doesn’t have the time to devote to them, either. Considering that the play’s climax involves the full company spending the better part of 10 minutes sorting through their jumbled relationships, it’s fair to say there’s just too much going on. Wing-Davey does not discourage this in his staging, which treats much of New York as a cacophonous, drunken fever dream punctured by only tiny pockets of lucidity. John McDermott’s set, which lurches between post-modern minimalism, Molière-ready, and full-out Viennese conservatory drama, doesn’t help center the action. In fairness, The Singing Forest probably can’t be centered in the traditional sense. It wants to explore so many angles to so many questions that finding a single conceptual foundation is probably not possible. But without it, this feels like a collection of short, unrelated plays rushed through by actors who don’t understand how any of what they do affects the show as a whole.

Lighting & Sound America D-
(David Barbour) It's really, really hard to know what to make of The Singing Forest; my best guess is that the play is itself an expression of neurosis. The script is loaded with incidents of repetition compulsion -- with certain conflicts repeating themselves across generations -- and of hysteria. A cure is dispensed when Loë finally tells the truth and a feeling of resolution -- if not happiness -- descends on one and all. As somebody remarks, "Symptoms are caused by secrets." It's around this time that one begins to suspect that The Singing Forest, for all its skepticism about the couch, is an enormously complex contraption designed to deliver bite-sized, easily digestible, bits of Freudian theory. Repression is a terrible thing, you know. Given the play's frequent hairpin turns and brusque tonal shifts, it's something of a director's nightmare, and, indeed, Mark Wing-Davey's staging runs the gamut from gripping to goofy. Dukakis' natural authority and her devastating way with a wisecrack allow her to dominate the proceedings throughout, but even she is hard-pressed to make sense of the scene in which her home is invaded by the supporting cast. (She is absolutely priceless, however, when, taking a call from the son she hasn't spoken to in 32 years, she shouts, "Stop pestering me!") In a role that seems designed to strip him down to his underwear as often as possible, Jonathan Groff does his best, but Gray is defined by his lack of definition.

Bloomberg News F-
(John Simon) There are voyeurs known as ambulance chasers, and then there is a subset known as theatrical ambulance chasers, who boast of having seen such monumental fiascos as “Moose Murders,” which closed almost before the final curtain. To them I heartily commend Craig Lucas’s “The Singing Forest,” which should close after Act One, before, amazingly, things manage to get even worse in the New York premiere at the Public Theater. A+ 14; Backstage A 13; NYMag A- 12; The Village Voice A- 12; Associated Press B+ 9; Variety C 7; CurtainUp C 7; TONY C- 6; American Theater Web C- 6; The New York Times D+ 5; New York Post D+ 5; Theatermania D+ 5; Just Shows To Go You D+ 5; That Sounds Cool D+ 5; Theater News Online D+ 5; The Daily News D 4; Talkin' Broadway D 4; Lighting & Sound America D- 3; Bloomberg News F- 0; TOTAL: 127/19 = 6.68 (C)

No comments: