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Notes From a Bunker in New York City

Larry Bryggman, left, and Rebecca Henderson, right, try to help Lisa Emery cope with the world after 39 years in a coma, in Harold Pinter's A Kind of Alaska.
PHOTO BY ARI MINTZ

Belying the stereotype of New York theater as pervasively diversionary and upbeat (Brief Encounter, La Bête, The Addams Family) are some brooding, caustic and controversial shows drawing large crowds and considerable press attention. To appreciate them requires a certain empathy for underground perspectives, articulated or shown through unpleasant and even perverse behaviors of characters who feel some combination of envy and contempt for the values of their society, which they have shunted from some emotional need, or from spite. To paraphrase a Tom Waits song, they have bad livers and broken hearts.

From the bunker, one sees the world as though through a periscope, which is as good a way as any to figure out where in hell we are, and where we think we're going.

Most here have hated John Guare's A Free Man of Color, at Lincoln Center's Beaumont Theater. A few have loved it. It's rare to see this kind of historical pageant (staged by George C. Wolfe as a cross between a comedy of manners and a vaudeville) on a Broadway-size stage — mainly because of the obvious expense of so many actors and of David Rockwell's lavish roll-away sets, with pieces flying in from the sky and up through the floorboards. The production also is monumental for the epic scale of its ambitions, the nuanced intelligence of its richly complex historical view.

Though he's not the central character in a palette with dozens of them, the explorer Meriwether Lewis (of the Lewis and Clark expedition) emerges as the character who best captures the production's paradoxes of style and theme. Set between 1801 and 1803, and finally homing in on the Louisiana Purchase by Thomas Jefferson, the play gives Lewis the job, on behalf of Jefferson, of trying to fathom what on earth the United States has just bought. (The purchase itself is depicted as the consequence of sundry deceits among the French, Spanish, British and Americans, in conjunction with serendipitous events that were only half-understood by the bedazzled and eternally compromising U.S. president.)

Lewis sets out not quite sure of what he's seeking — mirroring the play itself. He, too, arrives at a dark epiphany about the divide between the country's founding documents and the tawdry trail of its actions and policies. Even Jefferson himself (John McMartin) downplays the importance of that "all men are created equal" line he wrote as being merely a declaration to a king. You won't find anything about that in the Constitution, Jefferson tells the play's centerpiece, Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright) — a mixed-race, facile fashion plate with a massive penis. His ability to cuckold all the men of New Orleans is one among the central running jokes that, well, doesn't sustain itself.

Cornet is a "free man of color," a cad and man about town, that town being New Orleans. As history unfolds, and Louisiana comes under the dominion of the United States after being held by Spain and then France, Cornet will find himself re-enslaved, like his father, pleading with the tone-deaf Jefferson for his freedom, as Lewis seeks out the infinite possibilities of all the "white spaces" on the map of 16 states — white spaces that will linger in our brain throughout the coming centuries.

The play's settings, seething with slavery and revolution, sweep cinematically from New Orleans to the island of Sante Domingue (which will later become Haiti) to Paris. (The array of locales in the production must have been a dream for costume designer Ann Hould-Ward.)

The play's first half-hour is burdened by its expository structure, and its larger ideas don't come into focus until well into Act 2. Patience is, unfortunately, no longer a virtue in our age. Yet here patience does pay off, as the sprawl of scenes, like the sprawl of history, settles into a chilling and truthful view of who we are, and where we came from.

Pinter rarely looks as good as in Karen Kohlhass' stagings of The Collection and A Kind of Alaska for the Atlantic Theater Company at Classic Stage Company. The Collection concerns two households, depicted in Walt Spangler's elegant and looming, bifurcated set. An effeminate man (Matt McGrath) with a penchant for loud green-paisley trousers and candy-striped shirts stands accused of seducing the wife (Rebecca Henderson) of a sinister and possibly psychotic fellow (Darren Pettie) while living with an older partner (Larry Bryggman). The reality of what actually happened, or might have happened, keeps shifting with a sequence of explanations, each plausible and none reliable. We don't settle into an understanding of what occurred but an understanding that what occurred can't be known. This is accomplished with just the right blend of humor and menace, where Alfred Hitchcock meets Noël Coward.

A Kind of Alaska is an emotionally devastating slice from the life of a woman (Lisa Emery) waking in a hospital bed after a coma lasting 39 years, as her doctor (Bryggman) and sister (Henderson) try to explain, as gently as possible, that the larger part of her life has slipped by in a kind of suspended animation. Hard to tell what's more wrenching, the idea that, yes, this is how life goes by, or Emery's spirited and delicate performance, slowly coming to terms with her exit from one dream into another.

Robert Woodruff and Bill Camp's adaptation of Dostoyevsky's study of a bilious, spiteful wretch, Notes From Underground (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky), sets the narrative in the unnamed character's St. Petersburg (Russia) apartment and drenches it with snow — still falling as the audience enters the theater. The burly, disheveled Camp plays the role in contemporary dress — a short-sleeve shirt, jeans and bare feet — clutching a video camera that broadcasts his perspective of himself onto a large screen (set by David Zinn).

The story, lifted largely verbatim, tells the saga of a man explaining his own determination to spite the society around him from spite — to prove that he will not be a cog in a machine, even if that proof comes at the cost of his own debasement and destruction.

It's beautifully performed, if at times a bit glib. Camp occasionally underscores a perverse point by wagging his tongue around his mouth. It gets emotionally harrowing, however, with two visits to a local prostitute — a performance of stunning insight and understatement by Merrit Janson, who doubles as a Musician — whom Camp eviscerates for no reason other than to show (to himself) his own worth. Musician Michael Attias also plays a minor role.

The musical backdrop, sparingly used, underscores the literary romanticism spouted so deceitfully by the narrator for the purposes of seduction and betrayal. Woodruff's staging turns this mental clinic/bunker into a place where cruelty, desperation and debasement are placed on a microscope, and broadcast on the walls.

A FREE MAN OF COLOR | By JOHN GUARE | Presented by the LINCOLN CENTER at the VIVIAN BEAUMONT THEATER/LINCOLN CENTER, 150 W. 165th St., New York | Through Jan. 9 | lincolncenter.org

THE COLLECTION/A KIND OF ALASKA | By HAROLD PINTER | Presented by ATLANTIC THEATER COMPANY at CLASSIC STAGE COMPANY, 136 E. 13th St., New York | Through Dec. 19 | (212) 279-4200, atlantictheater.org

NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND | By FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY, adapted by ROBERT WOODRUFF and BILL CAMP | Presented by YALE REPERTORY THEATRE in association with BARYSHNIKOV ARTS CENTER, 450 W. 37th St., New York | Closed