Standards of Decency Project
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 12, 2006
I love the idea of the Standards of Decency Project: to explore what it means (or what it takes) to offend, to be obscene, to be transgressive—beyond mere sensationalism. Blue Coyote Theater Group has taken on an audacious and ambitious task here, both thematically and logistically, and the resultant evening of nine plays, featuring the collective talents of some three dozen theatre artists, is by any measure impressive. I wasn't offended one bit by anything on stage, however, which may say more about me than it does about the works presented (though I'm not sure how readily I'll concede that point).
Blue Coyote tasked its playwrights with creating short works featuring non-gratuitous nudity, blasphemy, and/or violence. Blasphemy seemed to emerge as the most popular theme, with five or six of the plays trading in it; four feature nudity (the count is 4 men and 2 women); four or five depict acts of violence. My imprecise numbers suggest how murky these terms really are, by the way, and how subjective is any individual's notion of what's potentially profane and/or inflammatory; this is surely one of the interesting lessons learned by participants and audiences alike from Blue Coyote's experiment.
The evening is bookended by the two works that probably go farthest in pushing the proverbial envelope, and perhaps significantly both of them have to do with Jesus (and both are written by young playwrights from the American South). Stan Richardson imagines a horny Joseph (Adam Rihacek), sexually frustrated during Mary (Violet Krumbein)'s pregnancy with the son of God; he ups the ante in his play's second scene by having Mary miscarry and then take the advice of the also-pregnant Elizabeth (mother-to-be of John the Baptist) to try to create a hasty replacement. Titled Patience (Or, Taking It), this comedy, staged by Gary Shrader, takes some leaves out of Ridiculous Theatre's book by casting a man (Jeff Hiller) as Elizabeth and having Joseph and the archangel Gabriel (Alexis Suarez) appear naked throughout. It's outrageous, though perhaps not as sharply satiric as it might be.
The final play of the program is Boo Killebrew's True Love Waits, which is about three "Sisters in Christ" who have pledged to "marry Jesus"; tonight is their bachelorette party before the big event. Killebrew's women are Southern but very contemporary. I love that one of them is named Crushay, pronounced very much like the needlework genre, and I love even more the way Killebrew has sexual frustration and religious fervor collide here so comically and forthrightly. True Love Waits is probably the most subversive play of the evening, and it's directed with manic energy by Stephen Speights, and acted by a fine cast (R. Jane Casserly, Laura Desmond, and Sarah Ireland as the women, and Sean Kenin in a funny cameo at the end).
The two most elegant plays of the evening are by David Foley and David Johnston. Foley's Earning a Sharp Rebuke from Emily Post is a modern-day drawing-room comedy in which five trendy upper-class types are waiting for their final party guest, who turns out to be God. Each of the quintet recounts his or her experiences with the Deity as though He were One Of Them, which allows for a startling amount of satirical/theological ground to be covered; contrast is offered in the person of Lourdes, the maid, who is mad at God because her daughter is in a coma. Foley provides a delicious twist to end his piece. The actors are Nathalie Altman, Sarah Ireland, G. Ivan Smith, Lenni Benicaso, Sean Fri, and Tasha Guevara, and Shrader is the director.
Johnston's A Funeral Home in Brooklyn takes place where it says it does; under Kyle Ancowitz's superb direction, Robert Buckwalter and Tracey Gilbert are hilarious as a funeral home director and a grieving daughter whose father has just passed away. To give away anything more would be a major disservice to this wildly original piece; I'll drop a hint by telling you that the woman observes traditional customs (she's Phoenician) that are, shall we say, unfamiliar to the typical New Yorker. Johnston's work is very funny but it's also slyly thought-provoking: one man's obscenity is another woman's cherished rite.
The most incendiary plays, perhaps, come just before and after intermission. Matt Freeman's What To Do To A Girl has a terrific premise: a professor at a boys' prep school is giving his new students a lecture/demonstration on the eponymous subject, with a live woman, clad only in brassiere, panties, and spike heels, serving as a teaching aid. The professor calmly orders her to remove her garments and then uses a classroom pointer to direct his charges' attention to the various body parts he speaks about. It could be a scathing and scary deconstruction of objectification, but Freeman and director Ancowitz seemed to pull away from the idea, veering into jokiness on the one hand and Freeman's trademark (and pertinent) social commentary on the other. Cat Johnson gives an intelligent performance as the woman, with Matthew Trumbull quite funny as the slightly demented teacher and Joseph Yeargain as a student helper.
Brian Dykstra's Two Totally Naked Guys Standing Around Talking About Blasphemy Without Getting All That Violent About It...Then A Sermon isn't even particularly a play so much as a demonstration of its title. Sean Kenin and Sean Fri stand naked in front of us for about five minutes, indulging in postmodern patter that includes a recitation of the actual email invitation sent by Blue Coyote to the playwrights and lots of self-referential dialogue in which the actors refer to their script, etc. It's followed by a sermon that will be entirely unsurprising to you if you've ever seen other Dykstra works: a diatribe about a whole range of liberal causes from gay marriage to the environment that I certainly won't argue with but I will wonder whether anybody in the audience could possibly have been offended by: this feels very much like preaching to the converted. It also feels unmotivated after the (gratuitous) nudity segment. Kenin and Fri are, though, game to do this piece. Speights directed.
Kristen Palmer's Something Decent is unique among the nine plays here in being an abstract theatre work that was, frankly, hard to follow: two interlocking (?) stories concern a woman who is moving to a new neighborhood and a young man who witnesses a murder committed by one of his friends. I think abortion figures in it somehow as well. Two of the actors (Debbie Jaffe and Cat Johnson) wear makeup and costumes that suggest that they're victims of terrible violence, and the dialogue talks riddles around that theme. Can theatre this stylized incense us? Only the brutal murder sequence, staged by David DelGrosso, roused any kind of visceral response from me. Nathalie Altman, Joseph Yeargain, and Michael Bell complete the cast of this piece, which is directed by Ancowitz.
The remaining two entries seem more tenuously connected to the project objectives. Laura E. Henry's Exposure, about three high schoolers in a ghetto neighborhood who terrorize a woman breast-feeding her baby on a park bench, stops short of anything remotely approaching graphic violence. Ultimately it offended more for repeating stereotypes about inner-city young people of color than for presenting anything new. Shrader is the director; Daniel Nunez, Tasha Guevara, Victor Almanzar, and Daniel Wesley comprise the cast.
Tiberias, by John Yearley, begins with a woman and man rushing into her apartment, apparently bound for a night of wild, passionate sex. But we soon learn that she's got some kind of—call it a fetish—for Palestinian men; she turns out to be an American woman who was once in the Israeli Army. Political overtones predominate here; Yearley comes close to pressing some hot buttons about the current tense Middle East situation but stops short of really exploiting them. Tracey Gilbert and Vedant Gokhale portray the would-be lovers, under Robert Buckwalter's direction.
So, here's the summary: some good provocative ideas, some successfully entertaining comedies and satires, some terrific acting—but surprisingly not that much to really jolt or jar. As has been famously (and legally) observed, it's hard to define obscenity and decency, but we know them when we see them; whether you'll be offended by anything onstage in the Standards of Decency Project will ultimately be very personal. I wonder if nudity, violence, and blasphemy are finally the signifiers of obscenity at this cultural moment: maybe a play about denying the Holocaust or stealing your employees' pension fund would hit the mark more closely. In any event, I commend this lively and ambitious concept and laud the Blue Coyotes for taking it and running with it as successfully as they have. This is a varied and entertaining and fascinating evening of theatre.