A Glance at New York
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 19, 2007
Axis Company's production of A Glance at New York is a remarkable experience. I'm not sure that I've ever seen any work of theatre this Brechtian and this postmodernly deconstructionist accomplish its artistic goals so effectively.
The play itself dates back to 1848. It was written by Benjamin A. Baker and, according to the Axis's program notes, was "the first true American stage blockbuster." It introduced the character of Mose the Fireman, a larger-than-life rowdy urban counterpart to other American tall tale heroes like Paul Bunyan and Mike Fink; in the play, when other characters get into scrapes they can't get out of, Mose appears like an earthbound but otherwise preternaturally powerful Superman to save the day.
The chief recipient of Mose's help in A Glance at New York is George Parsells, a well-heeled but entirely innocent country bumpkin who has come to the Big City for the first time. The play is essentially a series of vignettes, in most of which George is taken advantage of by a pair of slippery characters always named Jake and Mike (it wasn't clear to me whether they were the same Jake and Mike in every case or not). To us knowing New Yorkers in the audience, George is a rube and Jake and Mike are Bowery con artists (to George, Jake and Mike are city slickers from whom he eventually learns an important lesson about survival on Manhattan Island).
The tone of the thing is meant to be fast, furious, and funny: the best analogy I can find is to classic cartoons—substitute Elmer Fudd for George and Bugs Bunny and/or Daffy Duck for Jake and Mike and you'll have an idea of the natural rhythm and also of the intended stakes (i.e., very low indeed). George's naivete makes him an easy mark, and we're entertained watching the sneaky guys get the better of him, and we're satisfied when Mose steps in to restore (a kind of) order.
But director Randy Sharp doesn't think the events of A Glance at New York are funny at all, and the amazing thing is that rather than spoiling the show with her grim perspective, she transforms it into a surprising work of activist art. The nine actors seem to be playing not simply their assigned characters in the play but also, layered around that, authentic denizens of 1848 New York. They're dirty and scared and desperate and even a little bit disoriented almost all the time; without saying or doing anything overt, they comment eloquently on the conditions (economic, political, social) that make George, Mose, Jake, and Mike not just plausible but inevitable parts of the raw urban landscape. There's a Dickensian feel to the proceedings, and also a Brechtian one; Sharp accomplishes the singular hat trick of dismantling, for our benefit, both of those traditions in the context of the most simpleminded of farce/melodramas. The result is sort of breathtakingly resonant, for the very problems that Glance unintentionally illuminates still live with us today.
Sharp keeps the pace quick and the play short, just a shade over 45 minutes long. More than that might be hard to take; this Glance is more to be admired than to enjoyed. The design, especially spectacularly detailed costumes by Lee Harper and Matthew Simonelli, is top-notch. The acting, very skillfully adhering to Sharp's idiosyncratic vision of the play, is expert all around, with particular standouts being Brian Barnhart as Jake, Laurie Kilmartin as George's citified cousin Jane, and Ian Tooley as the sometimes terrified, sometimes stubborn George. The show includes several hauntingly melancholy musical numbers, including a gorgeously sad "Beautiful Dreamer" sung by Britt Genelin.
Sharp and her Axis colleagues turn what could be a campy or gimmicky glance at our city's past into a soulful, mournful, long look. Sometimes it even feels uncomfortably like a look in a mirror, and that's this show's particular potency.