Tuesday, February 27, 2018

167 (2017-2018): Review: THE AMATEURS (seen February 22, 2017)

“Not Prime Time”

While I admit to not having been entirely in love with Marjorie Prime, Jordan Harrison’s provocative, 2015 sci-fi drama about the cloning of departed loved ones, the play was respected enough to become both a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a movie featuring its original star, Lois Smith. 

I’d be very surprised if a similar fate lies in store for Harrison’s latest effort, The Amateurs, a labored comedy at the Vineyard set amid a band of 14th-century strolling players performing passion plays in a world suffering from the plague, intended as a metaphor for AIDS.
Thomas Jay Ryan, Michael Cyril Creighton. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
You’ll need more than two hands, though, to balance out the play’s multiple threads. For one thing, it tries to be one of those cheeky backstage comedies about amateurish actors’ egos, insecurities, jealousies, and production mishaps, not unlike a fledgling attempt at what Shakespeare pulls off so brilliantly in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Thomas Jay Ryan, Quincy Tyler Bernstine. Ph.oto: Carol Rosegg
It also offers a charmless variation of the artless theatricality enacted in the Dream’s “Pyramus and Thisbe” scene. There are so many anachronisms (like 17th-century sliding wings) that theatre historians will need CPR. 
Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Jennifer Kim. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Then there’s the extensive, liberally adapted use of the “Noah’s Flood” segment from England’s Wakefield Pageant, the play-within-the-play that the players keep rehearsing, and whose theme of a brighter future following the deluge is tied to the subject of the suffering brought on by the plague. Also getting stage time is “The Seven Deadly Sins,” using large, distorted masks (designed by Raphael Mishier) reminiscent of those ubiquitous Halloween ones of Munch’s “The Scream.”
Thomas Jay Ryan, Greg Keller. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
But that’s not all. We watch a medieval actress, Holly (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), whose responsibilities include playing Noah’s nagging wife, discover the process of how to motivate her character. These discoveries bring her into conflict with the self-important, Bottom-like director, Larking (Thomas Jay Ryan), who, miscounting, insists that the actor has only one job: “Remember the words, and say them audibly.”
Gregg Keller, Thomas Jay Ryan, Quincy Tyler Bernstine. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The plot includes romantic jealousies; the pregnancy of the promiscuous actress, Rona (Jennifer Kim), which leads to a comically exaggerated onstage birth; and the presence of a technically talented, nebbishy player, Gregory (Michael Cyril Creighton), too homely to get cast without a mask. Gregory not only creates a scenic scroll painting showing all the animals in Noah’s ark but, thanks to a holy relic, even nails the role of miracle worker.   
Michael Cyril Creighton. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Further, we meet the secretly gay actor-lovers, Henry (Kyle Beltran) and Brom (also Beltran), who die from the plague; observe Henry’s return as a ghost; note the players’ frequent praying to personal deities (one does so while wearing tefillin); witness (again, with memories of the Dream) a tryout for a duke who, it is hoped, will save the actors from the plague by making them his resident troupe; and even encounter antisemitism through the person of a Jewish doctor called Physic (Gregg Keller) who takes refuge with the troupe when his people are blamed for the plague.
Michael Cyril Creighton, Greg Keller, Kyle Beltran. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
These and other issues stuff Acts One and Three, but it’s in Act Two that the play truly implodes by becoming a metatheatrical TED talk. This happens when the medieval world is abandoned and the actor of Gregory enters in modern grunge, breaks the fourth wall, and not only informs us he’s Harrison, the playwright, but also makes clear he’s Michael Cyril Creighton playing the part.   
Kyle Beltran, Jennifer Kim. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
After delivering a lengthy speech on his personal experiences growing up gay and encountering AIDS, he segues into an explanation of how Noah’s wife was “a milestone in the emergence of character.” This inspires him to talk about the evolution of human imagery in art as history moved from the Byzantine to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. At one point, he even brings on three actors wearing sandwich boards with images of the Madonna on their backs to illustrate his ideas. He does this effectively but anyone knowledgeable about the emergence of humanism from medieval piety will be familiar with the material.

Harrison isn’t finished, though. His next step is to have Quincy Tyler Bernstine appear as herself to talk about how she learned to characterize the essentially characterless role of Mrs. Cratchit in a production of A Christmas Carol, a discovery she deploys to emphasize the need for human agency. Regardless of how well these intrusions are acted, they come off as desperate attempts to distract from the flailing play around them.
Michael Cyril Creighton, Quincy Tyler Bernstine. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
David Zinn’s relatively simple set consists of a grassy stage dominated by a mound and a Mother Courage-like pageant wagon that opens to reveal a colorful, if historically inaccurate, scenic background. It’s later supplemented by a pretty but equally out-of-period court theatre setting. Jessica Pabst contributes attractive costumes, both straightforward and tongue-in-cheek, Jen Schriever lights everything with panache, and Bray Poor offers a helpful sound design and music.
Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Jennifer Kim, Kyle Beltran, Thomas Jay Ryan (above). Photo: Carol Rosegg.
A cast of well-respected New York actors, under Oliver Butler’s nothing-special direction, is unable to make The Amateurs, written in three intermissionless acts running a lugubrious 90 minutes, either funny enough to spark more than a few polite laughs or touching enough to draw tears. Unlike Harrison’s last play, The Amateurs isn’t ready for prime time.


Vineyard Theatre
108 E. 15th St., NYC
Extended to March 29