nytheatre.com review by Russell M. Kaplan
July 6, 2009
Italian director Dario D'Ambrosi has just introduced his own new genre of theatre (how often can you say that?), so in writing about Night Lights I'm put in the interesting position of assessing both the play and the unique way he's chosen to present it. Let's start with the latter topic, because it's far more interesting: it's "The Drive-In Stage," in which the audience watches the action on an empty city street from the comfort of a parked car (the vehicle is provided if you don't drive), with the audio piped in through headphones.
It's kind of impossible to show up to such an event without anticipating your own reaction, especially when you're dealing with such an iconic model as the Drive-In Movie. While I knew not to expect any food service by a waitress on roller skates, I won't deny I was hoping for a larger-than-life experience, or at least getting to witness something highly special and theatrical through the windshield.
But when actress Celeste Moratti pulls up in her own car to start the play, it becomes clear that larger-than-life is not on the menu. Still seated in the car, she has a heated argument with her mother, before finally opening the door when her date shows up—a would-be anonymous sex partner she's met through the Internet (Jarde Jacobs). The sex is derailed early on as the two emotionally tormented strangers devolve into soul-crushing mind games, digging into each others' neuroses and never coming up for air. They do, thank God, eventually get out of the car. And if you guess that this might end in tragedy...well, no spoilers.
Since attending this play I've been asking myself two questions. First, does this play NEED to be done Drive-In style? And second, what would it be like if it weren't? To the first question I reluctantly answer "yes," but for what I'd call the wrong reason...it needs the drive-in convention to distract you from its weaknesses as a script. Granted, for a while it actually really works—this IS an alarmingly cool way to watch a play. But the script is a fairly unoriginal psychodrama without much nuance, and the two characters' mutual need to inflict emotional destruction on each other doesn't really ring true. It's just not as effectively disturbing as it wants to be. And, while the drive-in effect does compensate for the plays shortcomings, it creates some problems as well—the headphones were blisteringly loud, and the actors' fully visible body mics distracted from the play's naturalism.
Naturalism, in fact, may be the main thing getting in the way of Night Lights' ability to marry style and substance. For the briefest of moments, watching the events unfold in the manner of a police stakeout can make the play feel uncomfortably real. But the heavy-handed writing, and the brave but still unconvincing performances that result, prove to be alienating, and prevent this truly innovative idea from reaching its full potential. It's a very exciting and new way to see a play...I hope to someday experience it with better and more appropriate material.