Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Such Things Only Happen in Books


By Thornton Wilder. Directed by Carl Forsman and Jonathan Silverstein. The Clurman at Theatre Row. (CLOSED)

Only Talkin' Broadway's Matthew Murray and Variety's Sam Thielman seem to have much affection for Thornton Wilder's one-acts and playlets that make up Such Things Only Happen in Books. The other critics think that this is scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of Wilder's work and matters aren't helped by the tedious production. Several critics single out Pepper Binkley (playing two fiancées) as the only one in the cast to breathe some life into the evening.

Variety B+
(Sam Thielman) Five rarely performed Thornton Wilder one-acts make up Keen Company's "Such Things Only Happen in Books," guaranteeing at least an audience of the curious. But what really makes "Such Things" tick, when it does, are the transcendent moments helmers Carl Forsman and Jonathan Silverstein find in the texts. A realistic writer gets his comeuppance without knowing it, an angel heals two people at once -- there's plenty here. The ensemble turns in smart performances, and Sandra Goldmark's gorgeous design aids the stagings, particularly the final one, in ways Wilder couldn't have imagined... The danger for Keen is not naivete -- again, Forsman and Silverstein tweak these pieces to keep them interesting -- but a generalized nostalgia that doesn't really have anything to say. This is what happens to "Cement Hands" and "Now the Servant's Name Was Malchus."

The Village Voice C+
(Michael Feingold) The plays, as small in substance as in shape, and the production, never more than modestly pleasant in quality, fit tidily in this cubbyhole. No harm in them, but nothing as gigantic in scope as Wilder's great plays, either.

Talkin' Broadway C-
(Matthew Murray) Each of the plays is a concise, thoughtful story; most bear Wilder’s trademark wit and his incisive view of human spirituality in its myriad forms. But directors Carl Forsman (handling the two Bible plays and the title entry) and Jonathan Silverstein (in charge of the Sins plays) and their actors don’t inject much energy or liveliness into the proceedings. The set, by Sandra Goldmark, is a wooden shack with cloud-parquet walls suggesting an eternal, chilly tranquility that isn’t right for every moment. That, combined with Josh Bradford’s dim lighting, casts a sleepiness over the action. “Cement Hands” and “Such Things Only Happen in Books” are quite funny on the page, but lull about a fair amount in performance; the other three step a bit more lightly, but heavier and less crisp than is ideal.

The New York Times D
(Jason Zinoman) It’s easy to see how this show could have seemed like a good idea. Wilder’s reputation as not only the most American but also the most sentimental of playwrights seems well suited to the company, but as David Cromer has demonstrated in the hit new revival of “Our Town,” Wilder and his reputation are rather far apart. “Our Town” proved to have a tart edge, and most of these slight sketches are laced with a dry wit. There are two religious-theme shorts — “Now the Servant’s Name Was Malchus” and “The Angel That Troubled the Waters” — that put you in mind of a less clever Woody Allen one-act. Carl Forsman and Jonathan Silverstein stage these plays at the Clurman Theater on a musty set with a minimum of fuss or invention. The actors look unsure of themselves, like witnesses to a crime they don’t understand.

New York Post D
(Frank Scheck) Directors Carl Forsman and Jonathan Silverstein can't quite navigate the shoals of these stylistically diverse works, and the evening plays out like an overambitious college production with the actors often conveying a self-conscious archness.

Lighting & Sound America D-
(David Barbour) On occasions like this, even if the work in question isn't too prepossessing, I usually express thanks to the producing company for letting us have a look at it. Here, I'm not so sure that the cause of theatre history is being served. I'm sadly forced to conclude that, but for the name Thornton Wilder on the first page, none of these pieces would be seeing the light of day. The plays break down into two types. The opener, "Now the Servant's Name Was Malchus," and the closer, "The Angel That Troubled the Waters," are part of a cycle of playlets written in the teens and '20s, each running about three minutes. (According to the program notes, The Theatre Guild Magazine announced these constituted "a new dramatic form.") "Malchus" and "Angel" are both works of theological speculation -- God is a major character in "Malchus" -- and each is over before it has begun, leaving behind a negligible impact.

CurtainUp D-
(Paulanne Simmons) This is a pithy evening indeed! Unfortunately, wise lessons do not necessarily make good theater. For the most part these plays are ponderous, vague and lacking in direction. People who are not familiar with the Gospel of John will not get much out of the playlets, and only In Shakespeare and the Bible has even the faintest hint of dramatic conflict. These plays might do very well in Sunday school, perhaps with a discussion afterwards. On a public stage they fall flat. Doubtless the Keen Company was overwhelmed with good will and a love of Thornton Wilder. But even the best playwright is not always at his best. And when this happens, even a fine company cannot save him.

TheaterMania F+
(Andy Buck) Thornton Wilder is chiefly known for his full-length plays -- most notably, Our Town -- but he also wrote scores of one-acts and playlets, several of which are beautifully realized. Unfortunately, the five brief works being presented by the Keen Company at Theatre Row under the collective title Such Things Only Happen in Books are not among his best, as they suffer from shallow writing. Worse still, they're performed here awkwardly by a cast that often seems bewildered by the material.

Time Out New York F
(David Cote) A five-pack of second-rate sketches and a very creaky production makes this latest Keen offering quite unsatisfying. Trying to steer a course between old-fashioned period formality and a more stylized treatment, directors Carl Forsman and Jonathan Silverstein end up with a disjointed and dull hundred minutes. There’s potential humor here—a guardian warns his ward about her tightfisted fiancĂ© and an author pooh-poohs plot devices while his life is filled with them—but the chuckles don’t come. There’s cosmic melancholy in parables about a prayer-weary God and a ministering angel for the lame, but the heart doesn’t break. Granted, this is Wilder, so extreme emotional responses are muted by wryness and irony. But the shakiness of the cast leads to tonal and thematic fuzziness.

Variety B+ 11; The Village Voice C+ 8; Talkin' Broadway C- 6; The New York Times D 4; New York Post D 4; Lighting & Sound America D- 3; CurtainUp D- 3; TheaterMania F+ 2; TONY F 1; TOTAL: 42/9 = 4.67 (D+)

No comments: