nytheatre.com review by Scott Mendelsohn
January 8, 2006
I like the idea of NEUROshorts: a collection of plays that explore the human mind through stories of its malfunction. Even the names of the conditions intrigue me: synesthesia, dementia, Aspberger’s syndrome, Meniere’s Disease. The jumbles of Greek and mysterious names suggest some epic tradition of heroic patients and scientists practicing their dark magic, questing to unlock divine mysteries. The evening starts strongly, as the writers of the first two plays find the legs to carry me into the worlds evoked by their initial concept.
Beneath the surface simplicity of its fairy tale structure, Edward Einhorn’s The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Robot proves surprisingly complex in its implications. Its “once upon a time” storytelling is enlivened by puppets, created and performed by they show’s performer, director, and designer, Barry Weil. Painted in brash, electric colors, Weil’s puppets express a surprisingly great variety of reactions with cleverly inventive minimalism. What makes the piece so effective is that Einhorn never boxes its hero in by pathologizing his Aspberger’s syndrome. The writer never relegates the boy’s obsession with robots, typical of those with Aspberger’s, to some ghetto for curiosities or freaks. It simply drives our hero’s quest. The boy’s inability to grasp normal humor is sensitively handled as well. He is effectively estranged from us, yet the jokes never come at his expense. Ultimately the piece pays off with a rich ambiguity. As unsettling as I found it to see a boy strip himself of human emotion, I did feel happy that he got his wish.
Kelly R. Haydon’s Vestibular wrings poetry out of a rather sensational bunch of circumstances. Hugo, a legendary danseur, has developed Meniere’s Disease, a condition that destroys his sense of balance. Moreover, Hugo has also ended up on death row; the mystery of his crime drives the plot of the play. A young male nurse and fan cares for the dancer as he prepares for the execution. Haydon develops this gothic melodrama into a satisfying exploration of art and the performing artist’s craving for an audience. Hugo mourns his situation with a verbal excess that recalls Tennesee Williams or Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story without being derivative. John Grady fails to display the verbal gusto that would make the most of his character’s eloquence, but he is an experienced dancer whose carriage brings dignity to the end of the play. As the nurse, Jason Liebman comes closer to the style of the dialogue. I only wish director Jolie Tong had infused the the imminent execution with a little more urgency.
Unfortunately, the quality of the second pair of plays drops off drastically. In her one-woman script A Taste of Blue, writer Alexandra Edwards describes the experience of a woman (played by Amy Montminy) whose senses become jumbled: color is tasted; sound is smelled, and so forth. The impressionistic text lists observations from this point of view, which director Julia Martin has staged as oddly intoned, disjointed declarations in the dark, to a backdrop of vague music and video projections. In a couple of brief scenes, the lights come up and Montminy addresses us simply and directly; in those moments she is charming. Mostly, however, I found the piece numbing.
Doctors Jane and Alexander, also written by the Edward Einhorn, the festival’s artistic director, presents a variety of facts from his family history. “Edward” (Jorge Cordoba) appears in the play, interviewing his mother (Alyssa Simon) who is wheelchair bound and suffers from mild dementia. As he asks her about her psychological research, he also discusses his grandfather, Alexander Weiner (David Palmer Brown), who discovered the Rh factor in blood. There is a suggestion that Weiner’s stellar career somehow stunted that of the mother, like a large tree that chokes a sapling beneath it. But a relationship is never established; father and daughter do not even have a scene together. Simon brings some weight to her performance as the mother; her physicalization of the woman’s debility has real poignancy. Director Ian Hill and the cast also have fun staging a series of living comic book panels about Dr. Weiner’s hematology research. But the piece amounts to little more than a pageant of disconnected scenes, and any thread or resonance that might have held the entire evening together is diminished by this weak finish.