nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
July 21, 2010
There's an enormous—a fabulous—amount of style displayed in Hater, from the minute you enter the Ohio Theater to find yourself walking to your seats down the center of Daniel Zimmerman's set: a fashion runway that vaguely echoes 17th-century France, with elaborately painted black and white floor tiles, mirrored pillars, chandeliers dripping with crystals; flashbulbs pop from one side and a club-ready mix of techno music plays in the background. In a touch that brilliantly mixes the practical (the Ohio is not air-conditioned) with the aesthetic, every seat in the audience bears a paper fan: white for the main bank of seats, black for the row lining each side of the stage. The characters' first entrance, strutting like models, dressed in a sort of contemporary punk deconstruction of French courtier fashion (striped satin vest mixed with rolled up pants and sneakers; tailcoat over a bare chest and acid-washed jeans, all designed by Sarah Cubbage), keeps to the theme: a kind of postmodern spin on the court of Louis XIV, with the foppish courtiers become fashionistas and the social jockeying translated into a modern set of power plays.
But although the visuals and the overall aesthetic—and a few key moments in Samuel Buggeln's script—embody the mirroring of (and/or the tension between) new and old, this update of The Misanthrope by and large isn't always as successful at negotiating that balance. The language is modern—its idioms, its rhythms, its casual use of profanity for emphasis—but Moliere's plot elements like court intrigues and intricate lawsuits have been left as they are without gloss; it's clearly a choice on the part of the translator (who is also the director), but one that doesn't sit comfortably within the contemporary language. References to "the Louvre" and certain kinds of lawsuits had a social immediacy, a contextual meaning, to the audience seeing this play in its own time; the stakes for the characters would have been understood. Here, some of those elements just felt like window-dressing—and I would have liked to see more clearly how these intrigues and power plays really operated in the lives of these characters.
On the other hand, certain elements of Buggeln's script do perfectly hit that spot of productive resonance between the periods, notably the dilemma of the main character, Alex. Alex is a man disgusted by the hypocrisies of social interaction—gossiping mercilessly about someone only to rush to air-kiss and coo over him the minute he walks in the door; vicious digs delivered face-to-face to a "dear friend" in the guise of "constructive criticism." And he's completely incapable of playing these games, to the point of causing a major social uproar by honestly criticizing an acquaintance's terrible sonnet when asked for his opinion. He declares war on humanity, vowing not to spare people anymore for the sake of social harmony.
Despite all this, Alex is completely besotted by Celine, a player of social games par excellence with at least four suitors on the string (in addition to Alex, there's Ron—composer of the sonnet Alex rips to shreds—and two marquises, Clinton and Cashin, vying for her attention). Alex is simultaneously disgusted and impassioned by Celine, desperately in love and hideously jealous, and his friend Phil urges him to transfer his attentions to a more suitable object, like Celine's sweet cousin Lianne (who, in typical comic style, loves Alex fruitlessly, while Phil in turn loves Lianne with equal fruitlessness). Also vying for Alex's affections is Alison, a supposedly virtuous woman who delights in nothing more than inspired cattiness.
One of the paradoxical delights of the piece is that the cattier the role, the more inspired seems to be the performance. Nick Dillenburg's portrayal of Alex's stodgy rectitude is outshone time and time again by the "phonies"—Zoe Winters's gossipy glee as Celine; Daniel Morgan Shelley and Colby Chambers's bitchy rivalry as Clinton and Cashin; and above all, Aysan Celik's maniacal relish in delivering Alison's insults thinly cloaked as gestures of friendship. Every expression that passes across Celik's face shows the shallow, petty reaches of Alison's mind: her desperation to attract Alex, her anxious wait to hear how her latest barb has fallen, her steeling herself to reject the next insult coming her way from Celine.
Hater is thoroughly enjoyable and its style goes a long way—but I wish there'd been a little bit more work done on making the story speak as pointedly to its contemporary audience as the style does.