Son of Man
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
February 27, 2009
Son of Man has an interesting premise, but ends before it ever really gets started. Anna Lidia Umansky's new play (she's billed as having "constructed" the script, whatever that means) puts eight strangers in a subway station together waiting for a train that may or may not come. They are seemingly held captive by the subject of this famous painting, who guards the entrance and confiscates everyone's belongings as they enter without explanation. Bickering and confusion ensues, with answers only beginning to dawn on both the characters and the audience when Son of Man abruptly ends after only a head-scratching 35 minutes, leaving lots of questions unanswered—like, why is one of the most recognizable figures in modern art a character in this play? And why do the actors keep switching roles?
That's right. The scene in which the characters initially discover where they are gets repeated three times, with more information being revealed each time and the endpoint of the scene moving further back. And, each time it gets replayed, the actors switch roles. Before that, Son of Man opens with a series of seemingly unrelated scenes in which the characters get introduced individually and establish that they're all strangers to one another.
And what's the interesting premise I mentioned before? Simple: the characters are in purgatory, which is presided over by The Son of Man (a.k.a. the guy in the painting). In order for the train to come they must overcome their hatred and fear of each other. This is all well and good, except that I had to read the program note to find out most of that. Son of Man is stingy with crucial exposition—like, who the characters are, why they're all in purgatory together, why a Magritte painting comes to life, etc.—that might illuminate whatever point(s) it's trying to make. Not to mention that it ends at exactly the moment when it should begin exploring its own possibilities even further.
The production itself is scattershot, at best. Umansky co-directs with Drew McDonald, and with nary an ounce of urgency. The importance of the play's events, the tempo of the action, and the energy onstage are treated casually, to put it mildly. Under such conditions, the cast gets hung out to dry, and the audience gets treated to a gallery of unspecified, unfocused performances and questionable foreign accents. (Yes, some of the characters are foreign, for some reason.)
Once Umansky clarifies what she wants to say with it, Son of Man could be a potent piece. But, until then, it has to be classified instead as a missed opportunity.