The Lesser Seductions of History
nytheatre.com review by Megin Jimenez
November 7, 2009
There's no doubt that the shock waves that rocked the 1960s still fascinate. In many ways, we're still reeling from the cultural and political transformations that upset the world as we knew it. Following a group of diverse characters through the decade year by year, The Lesser Seductions of History promises a dramatic snapshot of the time, with the benefit of 2009 hindsight. However, with an excessive cast and overly ambitious historical scope, the project takes on more than it can deliver, despite clocking in at over two hours.
Taking a cue from Our Town's Stage Manager, we are welcomed by "One," an allegorical character we later learn represents Progress, among other Big Concepts. She's a presence that feels like a low-budget instructional video as played self-consciously by Candice Holdorf. Presumably, the device is meant to guide and provoke us, with One asking questions like, "How many of you are part of something bigger than yourselves?" and freezing and re-starting the action on stage. The effect, however, is to distance us even further from the characters. With ten people to juggle over the course of ten years of history and personal conflicts, playwright August Schulenberg struggles to shape more than what the broad strokes of their respective professions or stereotype can suggest. Take, for example, the very weepy lesbian NASA scientist who dies of cancer before seeing the first moon landing. Or the insufferable bisexual "professional poet" who has an affair with the black musician (my apologies to James Baldwin), and later, with the unhinged nymphomaniac writer with murky daddy issues. Flickers of real personalities only come through when the acting is strong, as for example, Kelly O'Donnell's crisp command of a political activist's anger, or Isaiah Tanenbaum's endearing take on the weird outcast painter.
The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, race riots, the Black Panthers, Woodstock, LSD—everything's packed in, together with scenes (among others) of a near-suicide of the Golden Gate Bridge, estranged families, illness, adultery, missed connections, falling in love, and a couple of rapes. The weight of these dramatic events is a serious challenge to convey in short scenes, which is perhaps why they are often played for laughs. Director Heather Cohn thankfully keeps the many scenes briskly paced, with smooth transitions and a clear spatial and visual command of all the bodies on stage.
Obviously something is trying to be said, and the One character is the spokesperson here, asking questions about the role personal life plays in historical events, and trying to pull together a single thesis about the very diverse characters. Again, the excessive pastiche makes these Big Insights a muddled wash. In the end, there is no follow-through on the initial confrontation with the present-day audience, which is not to say we don't need some substantial thoughts on how the very failures of the '60s led to our current complicated notion of progress.