The American Living Room

As you bounce around from festival to festival this summer, perhaps in search of theatre's Next Big Thing, don't forget to leave time for the granddaddy of NYC's summer theatre events, The American Living Room (TALR) at HERE. In the super-informal (thanks to the building renovations made possible by HERE's recent acquisition of their own space: hooray for them!) and relaxed (couches are intermingled with folding chairs) atmosphere of TALR, you will probably NOT see the next Urinetown or Matt & Ben, but you will see some of the most provocative, cutting-edge, smart theatre anywhere in town. Honest.

I say this from years of attending and loving TALR; and also on the basis of  seeing two nights at this year's edition. The program that I saw on July 25 was a double bill of the short play Aurolac Blues by Saviana Stanescu and the one-man performance piece Drinking the Kool-Aid by Fernando Maneca. On July 27, I caught Michael Lew's Yit, Ngay (one, two), a solo play performed by Alexandra Price. All three helped me remember why I started loving theatre festivals in the first place.

Aurolac Blues is as tight and compact and full a ten-minute play as I've ever seen; Stanescu compresses enormous amounts of information, not to mention emotion, within this oft-overused form. Two Romanian Gypsy street kids chat about their hopes and dreams while fighting the dark and the cold with a bag of Aurolac (a paint thinner; see this article). The boy, Elvis, says he's going to turn into a vampire and fly to America, where he will see skyscrapers, dance with beautiful women wearing lots of jewels, and eat a big hamburger at McDonald's. The girl, Madonna, tells him to find her namesake when he gets there and ask her for a dress, since she has so many.

Stanescu's language is poetic and precise and her vision is breathtaking and heartbreaking as she reveals truths about these two kids in a few deft strokes. The piece is beautifully acted by Jessica Andres and Neimah Djourabchi, both of them are entirely convincing playing children at least half their ages, with dancer Natia Kezevadze providing a stunning and spare counterpoint in movement behind the scene. The sharp direction is by Nina Hein.

Aurolac Blues, with its contemporary Eastern European version of the American Dream, turns out to be the perfect companion to Mareca's Drinking the Kool-Aid. Following a funny dream sequence, the show begins with a film, apparently being watched by Mareca's character on TV, about Elections in the United States. It looks like a public school educational film from the 1950s—where did Mareca dig this thing up?—and it's corny as heck.

Mareca then jumps back and forth between a scenario at the Red Kool-Aid Company, where a new product—Red Kool-Aid with Holy Water Crystals—is being introduced, and a quieter series of readings of stories about life in Portugal under the fascist government of Salazar (who was removed in a coup in 1974). The Kool-Aid sequences, featuring cool multimedia and deathless performance art, satirize American consumer culture and other aspects of our current Body Politic with scary accuracy. The readings offer stark and valuable contrast, and not at all incidentally help frame the opening film excerpt and another similar one that closes the show, in which the differences between Democracy and Despotism are explained. Mareca has a lot on his mind, and he's not at all subtle in conveying it. One of the smartest things he does is to make us rethink our initial reaction to the two films: we start off laughing at them, because they're so darned hokey and quaint; and then we realize, as the rest of the ideas and images in the show enter our consciousness, that the notions presented in them are much too vitally important for us to mock or take for granted. Especially in America in 2005.

Mareca bills Drinking the Kool-Aid as a work-in-progress, and the staging and occasional bits of his performance do still feel somewhat tentative. But the text is in excellent shape. I hope it gets done many many more times; ditto Aurolac Blues.

Lew's play is a fascinating exploration of the lives and relationships of four sisters in a Chinese American family. The two younger sisters, whom we meet first, were born in the United States after World War II, went to college and became doctors, and are married with teenage children. The two older sisters were born in China before the War, and joined the family years later—one was smuggled out of Hong Kong in the 50s, while the other was only coaxed to join the rest of the clan when she was about 60 years old.

Lew gives each of the foursome equal time; the piece's structure is in fact built around this premise, with the sisters each delivering two monologues apiece (youngest to oldest, then oldest to youngest), with transitional dialogues between pairs of siblings in between. The effect is a slow reveal of both the overall history of the family and the interrelationships and attitudes of its members. By letting each sister have her say, we get four perspectives on the story's ideas instead of just one, which is a smart and incisive way to deal with subjects as personal as intimate feelings about parents, siblings, children, and the pivotal notion of "home." It also makes Yit, Ngay an insightful examination of what so-called "progress"—or at least the distinctive brand of progress known as American culture—does to a family, for good and ill.

Lew's writing is vivid and surprising and wise. Alexandra Price portrays all four sisters in what's designed to be a tour de force for an accomplished actress. Price is too young and, I think, lacks the chops to quite pull it off; she lets us hear the play and meet these four remarkable women, though, and does so with affection and clarity, serving Lew's intentions beautifully. I wonder, however, how Yit, Ngay would work with four actresses instead of one: the connections (missed and otherwise) among these characters are so rich and deep that it might be valuable to give the audience the chance to see them played out in more naturalistic fashion.

Alas, all of the shows discussed here are gone for now. So check out some other evening(s) at TALR. If the past is any kind of guide, you will be challenged, stimulated, moved, and/or entertained.