Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What Once We Felt


By Ann Marie Healy. Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll. The Duke on 42nd St. (CLOSED)

Grades for Ann Marie Healy's tale about the publication of the last print novel set in an all-female future run from A to F-. Depending on who you ask, the play is either a scary warning effectively directed by Ken Rus Schmoll or a series of confusing plot points. John Simon's 0-star review is surprisingly inoffensive, though he incorrectly refers to the "Tradepack" characters as "Traypacks."

That Sounds Cool A
(Aaron Riccio) That’s why Macy—who has written a book about a woman who just happens to be a Tradepack—has such trouble getting published: who can understand, let alone “believe” in something as “complicated” as that? Except, it’s not complicated, and that’s what Healy communicates so well, using What One We Felt as a case-in-point, at least for those who are willing to listen. This dystopia is a warning: not everything can be reduced to cold logic and mathematical reason. This is shown best by Benita and Yarrow (Hawley and Parker), who, because of a computer bug, wound up with an “error” instead of the baby they’d carefully selected from online simulations. And yet, Benita falls for it completely: “Maybe we don’t [have choices],” she says. “Maybe we think we do but an Error / Is some amazing lesson / Some amazing possibility / For something / Unforeseen / Something / Beautifully / I don’t know.”

Associated Press A
(Jennifer Farrar) Healy's witty, double-edged dialogue is laced with publishing industry humor as well as oblique references to disintegrating societal humanity. Parallel plotlines show the desperation of Keepers and Tradepacks alike regarding the baby allocation, while Tradepacks seem to be rapidly disappearing in a government -sponsored process called "the Transition." Eerie sound design by Leah Gelpe and lighting by Japhy Weideman complement the elegant simplicity of Kris Stone's smoothly functional set.

Newsroom New Jersey A-
(Michael Sommers) Here's a classy blind date for you: How about risking a night with a playwright you don't know? Now in its second season, Lincoln Center Theater's LCT3 series presents smartly-staged premieres of new works by new writers. Tickets go for only $20. A theater is projected for LCT3's future but in the meantime, the series is being staged very nicely at the 200-seat Duke on 42nd Street. That's where a promising playwright, Ann Marie Healy, offers a scary glimpse into a dark near-future in "What Once We Felt." Healy's sci-fi vision is hazy but chilling. If her open-ended tale seems to ebb away rather than satisfy with a resolution, my taste for bolder punctuation here simply may be a guy thing.

Time Out New York A-
(David Cote) If you have any interest in sci-fi or speculative fiction, all this (in a play!) should tantalize you. Healy lines up a series of provocative concepts and sends them spinning in heightened, comic language. It’s true, What Once We Felt isn’t an entirely successful fusion of sci-fi and literary comedy; a subplot about a couple who aren’t sure if they’ve downloaded a Keeper or a Tradepack lacks emotional resonance. And a recurring narrator, the last surviving Tradepack from the future, feels slightly tacked on. However, Healy has two big assets: an unfettered imagination and a gift for cultivating ambiguity and menace.

Variety B-
(Sam Thielman) If you think print is dying now, wait 'till you get a load of Ann Marie Healy's "What Once We Felt," a new play about the trials of the World's Last Print Novelist as she struggles for artistic integrity against know-nothing publishers and politicizing editors. Healy's parallel universe doesn't hold together terribly well and depends heavily on concepts that are christened and fleshed out badly, so it's up to helmer Ken Rus Schmoll to supply coherence and highlight the all-pro cast's delivery of Healy's sparkling dialogue, which he does beautifully... Interestingly, Schmoll gives the production some great quirks that make the problems with inequality ring truer. Once, for example, when we shift scenes from a swanky dinner to a slum home, Schmoll and lighting designer Japhy Weideman dim the lights, but the diners go on eating in the dark, over the much poorer character's scene.

TheaterMania C-
(Barbara & Scott Siegel) One can readily understand the raw appeal of Ann Marie Healy's new play, What Once We Felt, now at The Duke on 42nd Street as part of Lincoln Center's LCT3 series. After all, her story is jam-packed with lots of eye-catching concepts, themes, and plots, and plays into our society's current interest in science-fiction. Unfortunately, there is so much happening that the play very quickly whirls out of control, and director Ken Rus Schmoll does very little to help keep it in focus.

The Village Voice D+
(Michael Feingold) As in her earlier work, produced by 13P last year, Healy shows promise and daring. Unhappily, she also shows glaring novice faults, like leaning too heavily on familiar models and grinding her dialogue into a rhythm-less, repetitive stasis, which Ken Rus Schmoll stages at a painfully plodding pace. A good cast works hard, but only Ellen Parker and Marsha Stephanie Blake manage, briefly, to get past the obstacles.

The New York Times D
(Charles Isherwood) It may seem tedious to dwell so insistently on the mechanics of Ms. Healy’s plot, but “What Once We Felt” really does not offer much else to dwell on. Macy’s book is described as a work of “biting satire and dystopian leanings,” a blurb that could as easily be used to plug Ms. Healy’s play, which aims for the kind of territory covered more cogently by the British playwright Caryl Churchill in “Far Away” and “A Number.” But Ms. Healy spends so much time setting out the parameters of her particular dystopia that incidental matters like the creation of substantial characters, a consistent story and a philosophical argument get lost in the ominous murk.

On Off Broadway D-
(Matt Windman) Healy deserves credit for building an unusual premise with an ambitious amount of storytelling, but the play itself falls under its heavy weight and fails to recover. It would certainly help if audience members had a glossary that explained the Healy's vocabulary. Ken Rus Schmoll's shadowy, intimate production feels too slow and stale to make this alternative world feel threatening instead of just bizarre. The cast works hard to imbue their characters with emotion and urgency, but they often seem at sea and at odds with each other.

Backstage F
(Adam R. Perlman) Healy's only bit of creativity is her recombination of recycled semiotics, but this just turns out to be subtraction by addition. The allegory here is blunted with ponderous babble meant to pass for profundity. All of Healy's themes—genocide, worker oppression, eugenics, media manipulation—have been worked over by sci-fi writers for decades. At this point, they've been worked over by the mainstream media too. Rarely has a vision of the future been quite so dated. I have no doubt that what once we felt by the mere invocation of these themes was some sort of awe, but eliciting such feelings today requires wit, humanity, and at least a flash of insight.

The New Yorker F
(Unsigned) The audience is left to guess how things got to be the way they are, the effect of which is more frustrating than tantalizing, which seems to be Healy’s (misguided) aim. Her own fascination with language eclipses the drama, and the shaky cast, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, seems more concerned with the delivery of jokes than with putting across the story.

Talkin' Broadway F-
(Matthew Murray) The idea is a simple and fantastic one that comes closer to reality every day. Somewhere in the misty, digital-overrun future, a youngish author named Macy O. Blonsky (Mia Barron) has written what will be the last novel ever published in print. Your mind is soaring, right? You're picturing Macy fretting endlessly about the historic responsibility she must shoulder, stirring scenes and speeches about the old ways dying forever, the overriding sense that tomorrow has finally arrived - for better or worse. You may wonder how such a story could not be about the people who create and are affected by art. That, alas, is not even close to what Healy has written. Instead, she's made everything and everyone a symbol, given them all oh-so-cute names, and flooded the proceedings with such suffocating ambiguity that she's never able to convince you even for a second that she's aware - or interested in - what it all specifically means.

Bloomberg News F-
(John Simon) The play is written in free verse full of maniacal repetitions, presumably deemed poetic by the author. Further innovation has characters gesticulating in lieu of countless spoken lines. So the text reads, “You don’t seem fully,” followed by a vague gesture connoting “with it,” or “Considering the fact that,” followed by a vague gesture that is supposed to indicate “it’s all right in front of me.” Pity the poor actors trying to create movements for such things, with little help from the director, Ken Rus Schmoll. Even the best actors could do little for this overlong, underwhelming play. The ones we get are rather far from the best, three of them further burdened by having to play multiple roles. As Macy, Mia Barron is distinguished mostly by charmlessness. Ellen Parker does manage to make something of Astrid, Macy’s overbearing agent, in one of her two parts.

That Sounds Cool A 13; AP A 13; Newsroom New Jersey A- 12; TONY A- 12; Variety B- 9; TheaterMania C- 6; The Village Voice D+ 5; The New York Times D 4; On Off Broadway D- 3; Backstage F 1; The New Yorker F 1; Talkin' Broadway F- 0; Bloomberg News F- 0; TOTAL: 79/13 = 6.08 (C-)

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