Zen, and the Art of Doing Nothing
nytheatre.com review by Shelley Molad
July 17, 2008
We live in a culture obsessed with reality drama, yet I often wonder how we coined the term "reality," when most of what we see is far from real. Zen and the Art of Doing Nothing, now at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, is a pseudo-reality play written and directed by Michael Wallach, about an actor named Terrence (Allen Warnock) who, no thanks to a multitude of obstacles, is unable to take the plunge on stage for the debut of "Zen and the Art of Doing Nothing." While it may sound cliché, Wallach's concept is quite appealing, and it reminds us why we take interest in this "reality" subculture; even if we know what we are seeing is not actually "real," what we hope to see is something real, to see characters reveal themselves nakedly.
While Zen and the Art of Doing Nothing is built upon an interesting framework, it's the execution itself that seems to go awry. With too many obstacles in Terrence's way—from his intimidating, obstinate father (Brad Russell) parading backstage, to an unexpected, untimely visit from a childhood love interest, to feeling ill-prepared, questioning his decision to be an actor, failing to understand the purpose of a Meisner exercise, and rejecting the meaning, action, and entire notion of his role in the play—Zen and the Art creates too much steam, clouding the drama with extraneous elements that come across as meaningless shtick comedy.
The mere fact that Terrence has lost his sense of purpose in the role of "nothing" and must contemplate his choice to be an actor is enough conflict, but with so much ground to cover, he begins to lose his sense of time and urgency so that the circumstance of having to put on a show disappears and "backstage" becomes a mere place for the playwright to preach to us through long-winded monologues (no audience in their right mind would sit in front of an empty stage for so long). But, to our surprise, Wallach already thought of this, and he pulls our leg with an unexpected twist that includes a grand speech on "the theatre" from Charles J. Roby, who portrays an over-the-top New York Times critic.
Though Zen and the Art of Doing Nothing strikes a few too many chords rather than honing in on a central motif, the play poses interesting and poignant questions about the art of acting (and the art of doing nothing) with humorously memorable debates concerning the legendary repetition exercise created by acting guru Sanford Meisner—in these moments, the actors really let themselves go, which, though ridiculed, is what the infamous teacher intended. And by the end, all of the actors have been fully disrobed (metaphorically)—and the revelation we were hoping for does indeed occur.