See What I Wanna See
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 28, 2005
See What I Wanna See is a double-bill of two short musicals by Michael John LaChiusa. Both are based on stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the 20th century Japanese writer who is most famous for "In the Grove," which was filmed by Kurosawa as Rashomon and which is also the inspiration for the first act of this show, R Shomon. (The second item on the program, Gloryday, is based on "The Dragon.") Both pieces can be linked thematically to the title as well, but only superficially; they're very different from one another.
R Shomon, which I mostly liked, though in a dispassionate way, is a murder mystery: a man has been found dead in Central Park, killed a few hours after he and his wife left a showing of Rashomon in a Manhattan movie theatre. Whodunit? A thief confesses to the crime, claiming it as just another notch on his belt: "1951 will be remembered," he brags, "as the year Jimmy Mako terrorized New York City." The victim's wife confesses also, spinning a tale of assault, self-defense, betrayal, and finally a suicide pact gone awry. And the murdered man himself, speaking through a psychic who wanders into the police station, confesses, too—a suicide.
The reflexive joke is that this is the exact same story as Rashomon (or "R Shomon"—because one of the letters on the marquee wasn't lit), the movie that the victim saw just before he was killed. And the moral, stated up front in a jive-y swing tune that's the title song, is:
I see what I wanna see.
I know what I wanna know.
I don't need you
To tell me what's true.
Of course, we're tantalized to know what IS true; though I note in retrospect, that my companion talked about many things during intermission but not once did we ask each other which version of events in R Shomon was the "real" one. I think that's because the play, though cool, is also ice cold: there's some nifty stuff in it, especially musically (all of the Thief's songs, which are put over with sexy brio by Aaron Lohr, plus a tough-as-nails litany of recrimination called "No More," sung by Idina Menzel as the Wife), but there's no real romance, no heart—no passion at the core of the thing to explain why this story needs to be told one more time in this new way.
Gloryday, which I started out liking a lot, but then ultimately found very disappointing, is about a practical joke, or hoax, gone astray. A priest, suffering a crisis of faith after the World Trade Center attacks, removes his collar and retreats to Central Park, where he decides on a whim to post a sign stating that
In three weeks
At one p.m. sharp
A miracle will occur.
Here in Central Park
Before our very eyes
From the depths of the pond
Christ will rise!
Of course, thousands and thousands and thousands of people decide to believe in the sign, and the priest finds himself at the center of a maelstrom that confuses and then redeems him. It won't spoil things much to tell you that Christ does not actually appear in the Pond at Central Park; but a miracle presumably does occur. I thought it was the spontaneous eruption of belief among half a million strangers (something that others would just call gullibility); my companion (I now believe correctly) pointed out that the priest's renewed faith in his calling was the miracle, Christ or no. What's missing from Gloryday is the cathartic climax that rightfully should accompany one or the other of these miracles. I suspect its absence is intentional: the link between Gloryday and R Shomon is that we all see what we wanna see. I'd argue that the way we "wanna see" the Eternal dwarfs the way we "wanna see" a pitiful solitary crime by, um, a lot. The creators of this show might argue back, postmodernly, that everything's relative and everything's subjective.
For the record, there is one other deliberate link between the two plays: the priest says, at the beginning of Gloryday, that his life "is like a sentence in which every word seems to be missing a letter"—but I have no idea what that means. Brief Rashomon-styled musical numbers about an adulterous medieval Japanese wife and her lover precede each of the two main pieces, as well, for (I guess) reinforcement of the show's theme.
Gloryday contains one grand show-stopping number, a reasoned condemnation of organized religion sung spectacularly by the great (though here woefully underused) Mary Testa as the priest's atheist aunt; it's called "The Greatest Practical Joke." Henry Stram plays the priest, and he's quite effective (he's great too as the fifth character in R Shomon, a janitor who discovers the dead body). Marc Kudisch plays the Husband in Act I and a CPA-turned-Central Park bohemian wacko in Act II; he doesn't ever get material that lets him shine. Lohr and Menzel are relegated to relatively minor roles in Gloryday.
Ted Sperling's direction is competent but perhaps lacks the inspiration that might help these pieces soar. The sets by Thomas Lynch are similarly just functional; Elizabeth Caitlin Ward's costumes are much much better than that, really pinning down the characters with a kind of fashion shorthand (with one glaring exception—the very weird Tarzan-y ensemble given to Kudisch as the accountant-gone-native).
See What I Wanna See is not an unenjoyable evening of theatre, and indeed LaChiusa's melodic gifts brighten it up frequently, and there's wit and surprise in the story-telling throughout. But there's never a pressing reason for the show; in flitting about from perspective to perspective, LaChiusa fails to ground himself in his own point of view. And, as I see it, that's ultimately problematic: the difference between a show that makes me forget about my little problems for a couple of hours and a show that, after just a couple of hours, I will never forget.