nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
August 14, 2011
Across America, city budget cuts are forcing libraries like the one in Browsing by Glass Beads Theatre Ensemble to justify their very existence. How many people check out books anymore? How much of a standard reference section can’t be matched, if not outdone, by a Google search? What can the library provide a community that can’t easily be had elsewhere? Would a closed library even be missed? These are powerful questions, and Dana Call, Mari Gorman, and Craig Pospisil have written a series of vignettes set in an anonymous city library where the beleaguered staff trundles forward in the face of citizen apathy and the budget knife of a cruel mayor-elect. The vignettes are spaced apart by scenes played out from the library’s literary collection, brought to life from canonical books mentioned or read by the staff and visitors.
Topical though it may be, the play is unfortunately reminiscent of a library’s mood: subdued. Characters do not develop, storylines abruptly begin and fizzle, and momentum never builds into the sort of compelling, do-or-die defense an institution on the brink of extinction requires. Meanwhile, the play also shies away from exploring any deep sense of loss that might evolve from inevitable defeat. I am a bibliophile with library cards from two boroughs, but I thought it very possible that the never-seen mayor-elect might possess a convincing argument about this library’s expendability. Staff and visitors bond over books, but rarely the library itself. When the library staff suggests that visitors pay a $1 surcharge upon check-out, the idea of no more free books is met with mere annoyance rather than desperation, by a clientele that hardly seems to be on their last dime. Led by Ms. Rainwater (Danna Call), the staff provides amiable help, but it never feels essential. Her assistant Jerry (Christopher Estrada) likes his job, but admits it is nothing more than temporary as he seeks his degree and a return to New York City. He and Ms. Rainwater converse about visitors, but never about what the library means as a workplace. For Ms. Rainwater and Ethan (Roy Havrilack), the windy but well-meaning unemployed biologist who comes on as the new volunteer, there seem to be emotional reasons to fight the closure beyond belief in the institution’s community role. They perhaps have lonely lives outside the library, but in the library they feel a sense of purpose. Too much of this is left to audience guesswork. We never really learn why they, or anyone, values the library over the local Barnes & Noble or Starbucks.
The literature scenes are meant to add context and flavor to the library’s dilemma, but they unfortunately add little more than time to the evening. Their relevance to the slow-moving plot often seems a stretch, and at times they cross over into truly bizarre interludes— a farm woman (Suzi Lindner) brings to life a passage from Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution featuring the history and sounds of various livestock, and later a musical number featuring some dubious fake guitar-playing comes forth not from a library book, as all the others do, but from an aspiring visitor’s draft novel. Lindner, who delivers the number as the novel’s musician main character, has a fine voice, but it is the show’s sole musical offering, and her song, guitar prop, and rock-star entrance two-thirds of the way through a library play feel out-of-place. (The song is called "Everything is Relative to You," and is written by Andrea Wittgens.)
Director Mari Gorman has worked with a talented cast, particularly James D’ Amico, who delivers to the audience a Chinese fairy tale monologue ("The Blue Rose") that is the most captivating section of the play. All the actors nimbly inhabit a multitude of roles in the library and literature scenes both. Still, there remains room for more urgency in most scenes—too many of them seemed weighted down by the fear that someone was going to whisper “sshh” at the stage.