nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 11, 2007
In his "Writer's Notes" in the program for DeCADEnce, playwright P. William Pinto explains that his show is about "ten things hidden, ten things ignored" from the maelstrom of 20th century history. Pinto's modus operandi here is to survey the last hundred years of American life, a decade at a time, in ten vignettes or sketches. The result is very much a mixed bag. When Pinto sticks with the idea of looking at what's hidden and/or ignored, he's most successful.
There is, for example, the piece that opens the show, about a tragic footnote to Coney Island history that speaks volumes about the ways that greed breeds inhumanity: the story of Topsy, a renegade elephant in the sideshow who became inconvenient to keep. "Radio Play," representing the 1930s, juxtaposes a light-hearted (and light-headed) radio serial about rich society folks with letters (possibly authentic; I couldn't tell) to President and Mrs. Roosevelt relating the catastrophic circumstances of some of those who were ruined by the Great Depression: the suffering of the ordinary is always the first thing that's ignored or forgotten by the media, right?
Perhaps most effective of all is "Balloon Play," set in 1947, and recounting, with charming invention, the supposed arrival of aliens from outer space at Roswell, New Mexico. Pinto and director Akia pull out the stops on this piece, and it's a delightful surprise (whose secret I will surely not give away). This piece also brings out the best acting from the rotating ensemble (there are eight players taking on dozens of roles, most of whom do not appear at all performances).
But especially as the timeline moves closer to the present, Pinto doesn't seem to have looked very hard for things little-known or suppressed. The '60s play is about Abbie Hoffman and other revolutionaries of the era; the '70s play takes place at Studio 54; the '80s play is about AIDS; and the '90s play—not just boringly but irresponsibly—pokes fun at the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal. If Pinto thinks it's urgent to bash our country's last effective president during the disastrous current administration, well, I begin to wonder about his other choices as well.
The ten sketches comprising DeCADEnce cover a lot of stylistic ground, and in terms of its ambition, the piece is pretty spectacular. I'm not sure that Akia has made the best choice in having such elaborate sets for each vignette: transitions between scenes yield a good deal of down time. But I did like the way all the various scenic and costume elements are on display all around the playing area for the audience to see and enjoy throughout. And the use of projections and video—especially to introduce each of the scenes—is quite effective. (Media and projection design is by Matthew Kreiner and Su Tamsett.)
DeCADEnce doesn't go far enough to make the case for the 20th century that its title seems to want to make. On the evidence of what's presented here, even more perspective is needed before Pinto, at least, can really explore and assess the tumultuous events of the century just past.