"This is exciting ... ," a woman behind me muttered sarcastically under her breath at South Coast Repertory, during a Saturday matinee of Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation.
It was a harsh assessment, given it was only 30 seconds into the opening scene. Even jaded professional critics tend to cut a new play a little more slack than that before condemning it. Why was Biddy so annoyed?
The set, designed by David Zinn, was a realistic depiction of a dance studio in a small-town Vermont community center. If the five actors in the room showed any spunk or vivacity at all, Biddy might have imagined we were in for another revival of A Chorus Line — the hardwood floor, the CD player on wheels, the mirrors at every turn. But the actors (Marin Hinkle, Brian Kerwin, Lily Holleman, Arye Gross and Linda Gehringer) showed barely a pulse. Under Mark Barton's lighting design, what you could see of them was cast in shadow. Furthermore, under Sam Gold's staging, they were lying on their backs, positioned at various points on the floor.
The dialogue, from various actors, went something like this, and it didn't really matter who was speaking:
"One." Silence. "Two." Silence. "Three." Long silence.
Then two of them uttered "Four" almost simultaneously — which was a broken rule in whatever game they were playing. "Start again," said the leader.
"One." Silence. "Two."
At this juncture, Biddy let out a long sigh, followed, after about another minute, by her editorial, "This is the worst play I've ever seen."
The beauty of live theater is that the experience of communing with live actors is communal, shared with other audience members in the same room.
"Shhhhh!" the man next to me hissed at Biddy.
"Why don't you leave!" she wittily retorted.
"Why don't you leave!" he shot back.
The dialogue in the auditorium was clearly trumping the dialogue from the stage, like insipid blog comments whose infantile vitriol overshadows the article they're responding to. There was something very 21st-century about the moment.
Biddy continued to offer her running commentary on the awful play she was being subjected to, though she never took my neighbor's advice to leave, as was her entitlement. She even returned for Act 2. Perhaps she wanted her money's worth. Like that old restaurant joke, "The food is poison. And such small portions."
It took another neighbor, a woman in my row on the other side, to finally lean back and ask Biddy, in sugary tones, to please be quiet so others might try to fathom what the play was trying to get at. That helped, somewhat.
What the play was getting at is called naturalism: making every effort possible to mask the various artifices of the theater — including suspense, the contrived rhythms of language that give a drama its ebbs and flows, the condensed dramatic tension, colorful scenery and costumes — and replacing all of that with the illusion that we're in a living, highly pixelated photograph of a dance studio in a Vermont community center. It's not meant to be thrilling. It's meant to be recognizably, perhaps painfully, true.
In the theater, this form first emerged in the late 1880s. If playwright-philosopher Bertolt Brecht, who lived in the mid 20th century, saw this play, it would make his teeth itch, because it embodies everything he was railing against. The theater must expose its contrivances, he insisted, not mask them. That's how you avoid sentimentality and get to the heart of concepts that matter. Then again, Brecht emulated the kind of expressive theatrical forms that were floating around in the Italian commedia of the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as the ancient theater of China, Japan and India.
What happens in the truncated scenes of Baker's play, which follow the interpersonal revelations and romances during a drama class, is the stuff of soap opera: An aging guy just divorced falls for a younger actress, who falls for the guy married to the group leader, while a taciturn 16-year-old comes to terms with her broken family. The way it slowly, tenderly emerges, however, mostly through those silences that director Gold never shies away from, is kind of magical. And Baker's gift for the inarticulate dialogue of broken thoughts shows her to have an almost bionic ear.
She's a young American playwright, and this is an étude, an experiment in form, a beautifully performed classroom exercise about classroom exercises.
Yorkshire playwright Tom Wells' comedy Me, As a Penguin, in its U.S. premiere at the Lost Studio, is similarly a throwback to theater's naturalistic origins — more specifically, to British "kitchen sink" dramas of the 1950s. This one might be dubbed a "toilet bowl" comedy.
"I think you should see this," says visiting Stitch (Brendan Hunt), peeking out from the bathroom door belonging to his very pregnant sister, Liz (Mina Badie).
"Whatever you've done, just keep flushing," she fires back from her threadbare couch.
The play unfolds from her grubby living room.
With his penchant for the comfort of knitting, idiosyncratic and perhaps mentally touched Stitch is visiting his sister in Hull from even more rural Withernsea, in order to check out Hull's gay scene.
The tenderness between the misfit, almost mortally lonely Stitch and his very pregnant sister has much in common with Shelagh Delaney's 1958 similarly tender A Taste of Honey.
Themes of loyalty, love and desperate longing — intertwined with sadomasochistic behaviors — just keep trickling across the divide of centuries, and in much the same gritty, earthy theatrical style depicted in filthy furniture (set by John Pleshette) that represents poverty, and not just the poverty of financial resources.
Pleshette directs a fine production that gets to the heart of the matter, even if some of the North Country dialects drift a wee bit southwest into, say, Alabama.
Hunt serves up a dynamic performance as Stitch, laced with twitches and subtle mannerisms. Badie's Liz has a similar richness and authenticity. James Donovan plays Mark, Liz's partner and the father of her child, with a blend of the requisite gruffness required by a guy trying to scrape out a living in Hull, masking a softheartedness that would get him cast out to sea if more people knew about it.
Stitch becomes obsessed with a callow aquarium attendant named Dave, played by Johnny Giacalone with an arrogant brutishness that's a pleasingly hard-hearted antidote to the eccentric humanity that shows up in the room.
In her pregnancy, Liz has become almost addicted to a popular British snack called Battenberg cake.
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"Ah," remarks Stitch drolly, watching her open the wrapper and melt into paroxysms of delight at the first bite: "Sponge. Jam. Marzipan. All the major food groups."
What keeps audiences watching new plays may not be new forms at all, but merely the references that provide the necessary inclusion.
CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION | By ANNIE BAKER | SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa | Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m., Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:30 p.m. | Through Jan. 30 | (714) 708-5555
ME, AS A PENGUIN | By TOM WELLS | LOST STUDIO, 130 S. La Brea Ave., L.A. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 4 p.m. | Through March 6 | (323) 960-7721