The American Living Room
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
July 26, 2007
HERE Arts Center is always a great place to take in a show. I've always found the atmosphere there very friendly and comfortable. However, with the coming of The American Living Room festival, HERE becomes even more friendly and comfortable.
When you enter the lobby you can sign their e-mail list and get a free beer! That alone should pack the house. You can choose a temporary tattoo if you're not in the mood for a beer. In the performance space, they have removed some of the chairs and replaced them with cozy couches with pillows thrown on them. The seating area is lit by house lights and with lamplight, making the space even more inviting.
At the show I saw, In the Company of Trees, the performance doesn't formally begin, though it has a beginning, but rather the actors take the stage and stare at us and each other until we finally quiet down. The house lights remain up as we sit in total comfort watching the actors clearly display discomfort. They finally speak. They describe exactly what we are all thinking—what's gonna happen, why is nothing happening, this is boring. Then a girl enters. Is this the point where something happens? Maybe, but what is most appealing about this show is its complete unpredictability.
The play weaves around three people, two men and one woman, who are creating a story all their own, partly by exploring the components of a story. They argue over what is fresh and original as they create scenes and tell stories. They take turns supporting each other or shutting each other down or kicking the story in another direction. But the point is not to tell one story nor is it to create an identifiable plot and I found that fact so very intriguing. I really, really enjoyed this story/non-story.
Playwright/director Peter McCabe works with themes such as how and why do we suspend our disbelief, what is fiction, and what is real and how do we place meaning—or is there such a thing as meaning in a story. One of my favorite scenes is set on an airplane where the complication of the story is the complication of creating the complication. McCabe's dialogue ranges from the slow and inane to the pinnacle of intellectual prattle to some truly heartfelt interpersonal relationship dialogue. I thoroughly enjoyed his originality and his many stories. I was on the side of placing meaning on each story and suspending my disbelief like my hat on a rack the moment I entered the room. And that works for me but McCabe wants you to find your own way. Just like his characters do.
His characters shift gears quickly from being in the story to being out of the story. The actors, Chuck Montgomery, James Scruggs, and Caitlin Summer Mulhern, are fantastic. I enjoyed each performance from each actor on rather different levels. Composer Alexander McCabe sits alone up stage in front of his synthesizer playing mood music for the sweet and tender moments. The back wall is lit with green and sometimes red light, adding to the mood.
The show ended and there was no blackout. The actors broke character and took their curtain call. We all clapped appropriately and then we all sat there...waiting for something to happen next. Something that wasn't going to happen. Maybe the couches were just too comfortable and no one wanted to leave. I didn't want to leave and I was sitting in a regular chair. Finally in the lobby, we all gathered, chatted, had another beer or two and basked in the warm, friendly atmosphere that is The American Living Room festival.