Friday, May 6, 2016

3. Review: THE PLACE WE BUILT (seen May 5, 2016)

"The Grand Budapest Bar/Café/Theatre/Music Space"

Stars range from 5-1.
If the graffiti-covered walls and uncomfortable, wooden, kitchen chairs greeting you when you enter the Flea Theater to see prize-winning playwright Sarah Gancher’s The Place We Built look familiar, maybe you sat in them for Wolf in the River, which is running with it in repertory, and is also being performed by the Flea’s talented young acting company, the Bats. Like Wolf, this is a challenging but unsatisfying play although one more socially and politically relevant and thought-provoking.
Lydian Blossom, Leta Renee-Alan, Cleo Gray, Tom Costello. Photo: Hunter Canning.
My companion—a frequent theatregoer—was totally taken by it, declaring it one of the best things he’s seen in months; he even stopped afterward in the lobby to express his delight to some cast members (easily possible at the Flea); I demurred, finding its structure scrambled and diffuse, its multiple characters sketchily drawn, and, at two and a half hours, its running time overlong. Of course, my companion was reacting to what even I believe to be some very positive things in both the production and writing. The Place We Built deals with a very important subject, the rise of anti-Semitism in contemporary Europe, with the focus on Hungary, a place few audience members are likely to have visited. Anti-Semitism continues to increase in the U.S. as well, although not to the degree we read about abroad, so, for some, Hungarian anti-Semitism is likely to seem a bit remote, even in New York City.
Sonia Mena and company. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Gancher, an American who's lived in Budapest, was inspired to write The Place We Built by the experience of her friends, who created Sirály (Seagull), a "bar/café/theatre/music space" for artists and intellectuals appalled by Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian, reactionary, post-Communist government. Gancher was moved by the plight of these young people who were kids at the time the Berlin Wall fell and whose shared liberal values of a democratic world were being crushed. She notes in the program that the events—covering 2001-2013—are true, but that she also includes fictional elements, including the characters.
Tom Costello and company. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Director Danya Taymor and designers Arnulfo Maldonado and Feli Lamenca have arranged the action around a small platform stage, with scenes also occurring in two opposing corners—one being a bar and the other looking like a living room—and on a balcony (which you may have to swivel and look upward to see). At several points, music (consulted on and arranged by the Bengsons) is played on accordion, drums, and guitar; there’s also singing and dancing under Masha Tsimring’s flashing lights. With a cast of 16 only inches away, the play has an immersive pull that almost makes you feel like joining in.

The complex work looks at the bohemian friends and lovers who gather at Seagull—created in the abandoned apartment of Ben’s (Tom Costello) grandmother—for talk, singing, dancing, romance, and, with parties on Jewish holidays, reconnection to their fading religious identities (one, Zoltan [Ash McNair] even goes so far as to be circumcised by a mohel). Deliberately crude, comical puppet performances mock the government and its leaders, especially Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Mihaly (Brendan Dalton), a closeted musician, is able to be himself in this open-minded group. The unsympathetic police order them to vacate within 23 hours, a command they debate and on which they vote. (A cop says they should buy a one-way ticket to Israel.) The work is structured nonlinearly, jumping around in time, much of it via the experiences of individual characters as related to a video camera-carrying black student from Nebraska, Aisha (Isabelle Pierre), thus inspiring a number of flashbacks.

I won’t reveal the outcome but if this setup interests you, and it very well might, and if you like somewhat edgy production values as performed by a large ensemble of vibrant young actors under the steady hand of a gifted young director who shares a renowned aunt’s last name, you can find out for yourself. My companion would certainly urge you to do so. For me, however, the manifold perspectives, insufficiently developed characters, fuzziness about who, when, and what, and dilatory dramaturgy made me feel I’d stayed up past my bedtime. And that was before the intermission.


Flea Theater
41 White Street, NYC
Through May 30