It or Her
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 13, 2010
The subjectivity of one's reaction to a piece of art sometimes makes the act of creating a fair theater review nearly impossible. For it is—though only rarely—quite possible for the reviewer to sit in a room full of enthusiastic spectators who clearly enjoy and "get" the show that's unfolding on stage, completely at sea and quite evidently having a very different time from just about everyone around him. Then the reviewer opens the handy press packet and scans no fewer than three highly positive reviews of a show that left him cold. And the reviewer—okay, me—is mystified.
This was my experience with It or Her, a solo play written by Alena Smith, directed by Jessi D. Hill, and performed by Brian McManamon as part of this year's soloNOVA Arts Festival. The play had its NYC premiere earlier this year in FRIGID New York, where I had heard good things about it, so I was eager to catch up with it here.
It's about a man and his collection of dolls—figurines, mostly made of ceramic or plastic or the like. They live in his basement, which is where the play takes place. It transpires in real time, as he awaits a visit from the outside world. Some of the mystery in the story lies in who is coming to see him: his brother? the cops? The rest of the mystery is suggested by the metaphorical elephant in this room—a huge trunk, never to be opened, whose contents pique our interest from the start. Does it hold the remains of someone this man has perhaps done away with?
Smith doesn't ever provide answers to the questions she raises; her script just keeps raising more. It's a monologue, obviously, in which this man, Andrew, talks to the dolls/himself about whatever crosses his mind. Sometimes he assumes the personas of others, notably his twin brother. Is the twin brother still alive? Did he ever exist? Is Andrew schizophrenic, by which I mean is the "twin brother" a second personality of his own?
He talks a bit about his wife, who seems likely to be the occupant of the trunk. He mentions several times that he needs to find the "ultimate arrangement" for his figurine collection.
It's supposed to be spooky, a la Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," but for me it never was. McManamon's characterization and Smith's writing always felt indicative to me, as though I were watching a play ABOUT a play about a crazy man, rather than actually spending scary time up close and intimate with one. Andrew's figurine obsession in particular never registered with me, because (a) there are very few of them actually on stage (just three dozen or so, by my count; the script tantalizingly calls for more: "Everywhere else in the room," it says, "in swirling, confusing, complicated patterns [are] a collection of figurines."), and (b) McManamon/Andrew doesn't handle the dolls with the care and consideration that I'd expect a man obsessed with them to observe—the placement of the figurines and Andrew's relationship to them seemed random and disinterested throughout. In the end, the collection felt like the gimmick in a play rather than an organic aspect of a deranged psyche.
At least that's how It or Her came across to me. Could it be that seeing Michael Phillis's similarly themed solo show Dolls at FringeNYC last summer colored my expectations somewhat? Maybe: in any event, though apparently very much in the minority, I left the play not thrilled, nor spooked, nor even particularly engaged. The lesson of which is: chacun a son gout.