Friday, May 22, 2009

A Play on Words


By Brian Dykstra. Directed by Margarett Perry. 59E59. (CLOSED)

It doesn't seem that surprising that critics, except for That Sounds Cool's Aaron Riccio, like a play about words. Though some critics eventually tire of the conversation, they love Mark Boyett and Brian Dykstra's delivery. They also credit director Margarett Perry for keeping the pace swift. Perhaps most interesting about the reviews is what tidbits in the discourse on language each critic focuses on. A+
(Martin Denton) The press release calls this loquacious comedy "Seinfeld meets Waiting for Godot," but I think that diminishes this play's accomplishment and also diverts us from its searing political purpose. A tour de force for its two players—Dykstra and Mark Boyett—this is a journey through language and meaning, and how the quest for the latter is mangled and subverted by crafty users of the former... Godot is conjured by the two-guys-in-a-void setup, but the void, rendered brilliantly by director Margarett Perry, turns out to be a suburban backyard filled (incongruously, when we stop to think about it) with kids' playground equipment. Dykstra and Boyett give impeccable performances; Dykstra is generous with his material, giving Boyett some of the most stunning bits to deliver.

Backstage A+
(Leonard Jacobs) Rusty's perfunctory greeting to Max—"Hey"—instantly becomes a debate on the semantics of chitchat. How Dykstra achieves this is wild: He forgoes exposition, character, and other dramatic accoutrements to dive into the meaning behind the play's title. He does provide all these later, but for now it's clear this isn't how neighbors or friends communicate. Yet the actors understand that the humor comes from playing it real, and they do so superbly. Dykstra is writing about language—why things mean what they mean, and how we know. The play is like a survey course in semiotics, and often funnier than it has a right to be.

Theatermania A-
(Sandy MacDonald) Fortunately for us, these argumentative sticklers' frequent set-tos are no less fierce -- or funny -- for being so abstruse and picayune. These two wield recondite notions the way cavemen once brandished their clubs. And like many a topdog/underdog duo before them -- Abbott and Costello, Hardy and Laurel, Gleason and Carney -- they continually sow doubt as to who's really the smarter. While the snide, condescending Max never lets up on his assumption of intellectual superiority, it's great fun to see Rusty (whom Boyett endows with a Howdy Doody geniality) get some licks in.

CurtainUp B+
(Jenny Sandman) Dykstra and Boyett have great chemistry and have obviously worked together before, as has director Margarett Perry. Their combined energy keeps the play aloft and made me sorry to have missed their previous efforts. Ultimately, however, even Dykstra's deft hand with dialogue can't avoid the play's coming off more like a clever classroom exercise than a play. There's simply not enough weight to it, and even at ninety minutes it's too long. In short: Clever, yes; significant, no. That said, not every play needs to be meaningful as long as it's entertaining and when it comes to the latter, Play on Words does its job well.

Variety B+
(Sam Thielman) There are two problems with this first half of the play. The largest is that the exchange, which is pointedly not about anything except semantics, slows down the clock like a really long grammar lecture. The second is that the dialogue's focus on pedantry causes a kind of meta-pedantry in the listener (did he pronounce that correctly? Are we sure?). Finally, just when you're ready to scream, Max reveals his master plan to Rusty. Without giving away too much, Max's vision hinges on the invention of two slogans inflammatory enough to incite violence in both conservatives and liberals. Think about that for a moment: Dykstra's premise, which no one in the audience seemed to have any trouble buying, is that a large enough group of like-minded angry Americans could be encouraged to physically assault, maybe kill someone by a motto short enough to fit on a bumper sticker (the winning slogans are three very funny words each). It's terrifying to think public discourse has sunk to that level, but it's not very difficult.

The New York Times C+
(Rachel Saltz) There are tangents — why “hang” in “I don’t give a hang”? — and striking riffs for Mr. Boyett, an excellent actor with crack timing, who can reel off long, tongue-twisting speeches that gain in speed and virtuosity. Though his diction remains perfect, you’re likely to be more impressed here with the sound of his words than their meaning. What he’s communicating is exuberance about the noise of language. Mr. Dykstra obviously shares that exuberance, and while much of his play, directed by Margarett Perry, is diverting and clever, it can also get tiresome. You may find yourself tuning Rusty and Max out (language as white noise). They are, perhaps, too blank as characters, too anonymous to hook us with their incessant back-and-forthing.

Time Out New York D-
(Adam Feldman) Planted on Kelly Syring’s cartoon-suburbia set, they bat ideas about language around like so many tattered shuttlecocks, taking an ambling tour through linguistic philosophy that leads them only in circles. Director Margarett Perry generally keeps things moving, but tired badinage can march only so quickly. Frankly, my dear reader, I didn’t give a hang.

The Village Voice F
(Alexis Soloski) Perhaps Dykstra intends these endless digressions as a political statement—the play takes place during an election year in a swing state. Indeed, one man wears a red shirt and the other a blue. And there's an amusing bit in which the friends attempt to conceive two slogans—one to inflame Democrats, one to provoke Republicans. Maybe Dykstra is suggesting that Americans get so caught up in electoral frivolities and niceties that we ignore the important issues; we obsess over grammar and disregard content. It's a plausible thesis, but after 90 minutes about nothing, I didn't give a hang.

That Sounds Cool F
(Aaron Riccio) This review digresses, but mainly because it doesn't want to regress--to lower itself to Dykstra's level. (Instead, it seeks the egress.) In any case, if Dykstra doesn't "give a hang" about the ninety-minute conversation he has with co-star Mark Boyett, why should this review? Then again, the main fault of A Play on Words--aside from not being funny--is that it belabors its point--that "language is the opposite of communication"--by jumping from tangent to tangent to the tangent of a tangent. What's more, to accomodate this nonsense, Dykstra's characters are reduced to mouthpieces, and then reduced further: to mouthpieces that sound exactly the same. Boyett may be on stage with Dykstra, but it's really just to give Dykstra a chance to catch his breath. He might as easily have bounced his ideas off a wall, and given how stiffly Boyett walks, clinging to his props, it's possible that director Maragarett Perry had exactly that in mind. A+ 14; Backstage A+ 14; Theatermania A- 12; CurtainUp B+ 11; Variety B+ 11; The New York Times C+ 8; TONY D- 3; The Village Voice F 1; That Sounds Cool F 1; TOTAL: 75/9 = 8.33 (C+)


Aaron Riccio said...

Wow. Everyone loves an empty play about nothing.... but found the same wordplay to be absolutely unrealistic when used in "A More Perfect Union." Not that I mind being in the minority, I'm just surprised.

Linda said...

Sorry I didn't see your review, Aaron. I'll include it now.

Anonymous said...

I've never seen this site before, but think the idea is cool. Like Rotten Tomatoes. I saw this play and loved it. It's hilarious and full of meaning. The night I was there people seemed to be loving it and laughing a ton. I'm curious why a blogger guy that I've never heard of counts as much as Variety or the Times. Seems odd to me. That's not how they do it on Rotten Tomatoes.

Parabasis said...

Hey Anon,
First off, thanks for the kind thoughts on the site.

To address your question: Aaron is a blogger, it's true (as are the both of the founders of the site) but he also regularly reviews for several publications you've heard of, including Time Out, New York. Some of his reviews appear in print publications, some appear on his website. The only real difference is that on his blog there's no word count limit.

We do not weight reviews as a general policy here on CoM because we're trying to eliminate as much subjectivity from the (already admittedly subjective) process as possible. Also, I don't necessarily think that a review appearing in the Times should have more influence than what some blogger thinks.

Might I ask... would the equal weight thing bother you if you agreed with what Aaron was saying?

Anonymous said...

You're probably right. I might not care if I agreed with him. I was probably responding to the anger in his review. It didn't read like a review to me just an angry person venting for some reason. When I was at the play it seemed like everyone was having a great time laughing and laughing. It was so much fun being in the theatre that night that it is hard to imagine someone feeling so hostile about it. I can understand some people liking something and others not. That's cool. I just didn't realize that he was actually a reviewer. My bad.

Aaron Riccio said...

Anon, thanks for your honesty. Me not liking the show will hopefully take nothing away from your experience. If anything, reading my "angry" response only helped you to bolster your own positive feelings for it, because you had a strong enough opinion to disagree. The nice thing about online publications is that you usually CAN give instant feedback like this, and I'm glad you did.

Because this comment thread is for a play called "A Play on Words," I think it's worth noting that we're still hung up on labels. "Reviewer" or "blogger," it's not as if my words are somehow worth more when I'm called the former.