nytheatre.com review by Jack Hanley
August 14, 2009
Michael Edison Hayden's two-hander The Books is a play about the unlikely bond that develops between a dominatrix and one of her clients. Unfortunately, Hayden makes it all seem too unlikely. During many overbearing pontifications on literature and long-winded rants about lost dreams and broken promises, the architecture of their relationship never appears—or perhaps it was forgotten in the writing.
We see the two during or after several bondage sessions at Mark's apartment in Queens. Mark is a saturnine recluse obsessed with his piles of books by modernist writers. Mistress Chimera, played by Aadya Bedi, is an Arab immigrant who lives in DUMBO. I was hopeful that a provocative story was at hand when she reveals she enjoys dominating white American men because it gives her a sense of revenge for the American atrocities committed against Arab nations. But this interesting insight fizzles quickly as she relentlessly references television shows and her Facebook/Twitter world. And Mark, played by Scott David Nogi, also unloads a heap of hackneyed pop cultural references. And they fall awkwardly (with his fart jokes) somewhere between his many pseudo-Freudian analyses of novels by Hemingway, Joyce, Henry James, and other early 20th century white males. (Apparently we're to assume he lacks an appreciation for postcolonial literature.) Mark often sends television-loving Chimera home with some of his books to read—fancying her a Mistress Doolittle, I guess.
So what about the bondage? Vanilla. Not that there is much time for it with all the speechifying. In a play that attempts to examine a bonding from bondage or pain as a means to disconnect from reality, I expected a little more creativity in the physicality from director Matt Urban. I'm also surprised how he placed his actors. They rarely stray from what seem to be their assigned areas on the stage. And for long stretches they stand perfectly parallel to one another. Far too often it was as if they were giving a debate at a town hall. And much like a town hall debate, neither player seemed to be listening very well.
The production does evoke a strong, unsettling understanding of the dark world of Mark's mind—the isolation and loneliness he feels in a city of millions. But any sympathy was outweighed by impatience. Often the play sounded like Hayden talking to Hayden, as if he used the stage and his actors to present his random ruminations about American culture and literature. But listening to someone read his journal out loud can be a form of bondage in itself. And after an hour of listening to The Books I was wishing there was a safe word.