British theatre has been a reinvigorating force in New York for some time, with the best of the West End coming over and showing us how it should be done on Broadway, and hits from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival offering new ideas to the off-off-Broadway scene when things get stale. So one might have been justified in thinking that the choice by the eXchange, a new company rising from the proverbial ashes of the Jean Cocteau Repertory, which disintegrated earlier this year, to use premieres of two British plays in its inaugural season was a smart one. Unfortunately, neither of these plays is strong enough to make one look past the weaknesses in acting and direction that plague both, and the combination prevents these debuts from feeling very auspicious.
Realism, by Anthony Neilson, is the less satisfying of the two. It's something of a head trip, with the head in question that of Stuart (Stephen Plunkett), a whiny layabout who's depressed and questioning the meaning of his life because he broke up with his girlfriend and now she won't call him. Rotting away the day and night in a sleeping bag on the couch in his cluttered apartment, Stuart has flashbacks and daydreams that we experience with him such that the lines between what is really happening and what he's imagined become fully blurred, so even though his beer-drinking friend Paul (Jordan Gelber) seems real when he comes in the first time, by a few scenes later one has to question all that went on before. The madcap hallucinations that necessitate this new skepticism (his mother spins in a washing machine, he goes on the TV talk show he's watching, former girlfriends act out an erotic fantasy) make the title seem odd, but in comparison with what passes for "reality" TV, witnessing Stuart's stream of consciousness actually does seem more true to life.
The problem, or one of them, is that Stuart's character is hardly endearing; Neilson doesn't give him much of an opportunity to show that he's more than an annoying slacker who has made numerous dumb decisions, and Plunkett doesn't offer much insight on his own to help the audience sympathize just a little bit. The other characters, since they are mostly spun out of his thoughts and pop on and off stage at a rapid pace, are more a way for us to see additional dimensions of Stuart than they are their own people, though Tim Spears as "Mullet" (a sadistic imaginary friend) steals a few scenes with his hyperactive antics, and Bree Elrod shines in the brief time she's on stage as an early sweetheart of Stuart's. As his night, and ours, wears on, he seems to begin to understand why he broke up with his latest girlfriend and what he should do now, but it's not really clear if and when he snaps out of his reverie," things were so ill-defined, in fact, that no one in the audience was really certain whether the play had ended when it did, because there was no bow. Perhaps this was a continuation of Neilson's "realism" conceit -- the actors weren't performing, we were just witnessing a manifestation of Stuart's thoughts, so why have bows? -- but that inconclusiveness, along with the reliance on an unreliable, uncertain central character, make Realism tough to get into.
Lisa McGee's Jump!, by comparison, is straightforward; she uses some shenanigans with flipping back and forth in time while rotating among three sets of characters, but it's easy enough to sort out what is going on (what has happened and what will happen) and once you can see how the characters and the sequence of events they're involved in interlock, any suspense evaporates. The bulk of the cast is the same: the scene opens with Johnny (Plunkett again) meeting Ross (Gelber) at a Staten Island bar on New Year's Eve, with the two contracted to off a third man to pay off a debt. At the bar just before them (though coming on stage after the two men's first scene) is a group of three women who are waiting on another before going out clubbing; they bitch, in inconsistent "New Yawk" accents, about their lives and about the absent friend, Greta. Finally, going back slightly further still in time, a man and woman meet by accident on a bridge, both intending to commit suicide. These stories all weave together, but in a predictable fashion that isn't helped by the melodrama of the acting -- nearly every line is shouted, it seems, and the characters are mostly simple stereotypes that aren't given much extra flesh on their bones by the actors. The woman on the bridge, whose story could have been used to give the play more meaning and feeling, is played engagingly by Elrod, but we are left to guess everything about her, and like Realism, the play ends inconclusively, with very few signs from the playwright or cast as to what, if anything, we might get out of it.
Though neither show featured stellar acting, and the story lines weren't outstanding, a deeper problem might be in Ari Edelson's direction, from the awkward attempt to make these British works more New York, in both language and setting, to the chaotic pacing, especially in Realism, which keeps the audience unpleasantly on edge. Looking past that, the plays themselves seem to have the potential to be more coherent and thought provoking than they are here, and I can't help but think that with a firmer directorial vision and perhaps a British cast, their chance of success would have been greater. As it is, in Realism the audience is at loose ends for much of the time, and while that feeling might mirror the main character's, it's not very entertaining -- the goal Neilson has said he has for his work -- while in Jump! the too-free rein given to the actors means that many characters end up as melodramatic caricatures. Without seeing a different staging, it's hard to say for sure whether another director's vision would have yielded really great results, but something is clearly off in Edleson and the eXchange's take on them. A theatre lover is glad both to see new works by unfamiliar playwrights, and the Jean Cocteau Repertory getting a new life, but the unavoidable conclusion is that this particular combination was less than auspicious: the debuts could have used surer hands, while the new company would have benefited from starting out with more tried-and-true material. With luck, on their next outings we will see better what all the parties involved are capable of. - Mallory Jensen
Realism runs through May 13 and Jump! through May 20 at the Kirk Theatre, 410 W. 42nd Street, NYC.
Ms. Jensen is a writer in New York who works in book publishing when she is not attending an indie play/film/concert.