They left, singles and couples, and at least one group of three or four, softly plodding to the exits.
However ambitious or (dread word) challenging you want your opening production to be, the overseers of theater at The Shed, New York’s bright, shiny, new artistic leviathan at Hudson Yards, could not have welcomed the sight of so many people walking out of their debut production, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy (to May 19), on Saturday night.
This wasn’t a long performance either, but rather an intermissionless 90 minutes. This critic estimates he saw about 10-15 people leaving; a conservative estimate which doesn’t take into account any who snuck out before my eyes drifted over to the escapees heading to the exit.
That this “spoken and sung performance piece,” which officially opens tonight, isn’t so much better is surprising as it features big stars (Ben Whishaw and Renée Fleming), and it was written by poet, essayist and scholar Anne Carson and directed by the celebrated Katie Mitchell.
Yet despite all this blue-chipness, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy is a strange, lifeless, opaque mess, possessing a kind of theatrical pretension that gets ridiculed in plays or films about theatrical pretension.
It is a play formed, we learn in the program, through Euripedes' Helen, which recast the story of “legendarily the harlot of Troy and destroyer of two civilizations” from her point of view, and her sorrow. In the program, #MeToo and that exhaustingly overused phrase “fake news” are both invoked, as well as Carson's intention to “let dark realities materialize dimly” in particular sections of the play.
Well, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy can claim success on that score at least. The set, far too far away from the audience, feels like a retreating photograph. On it, you had two otherwise-wonderful performers, Whishaw and Fleming, playing within what first looks like the office of a gumshoe.
It’s New Year’s Eve, turning to New Year’s Day, 1963, with fireworks booming outside like bombs. Whishaw’s character has a mood board of sorts, and—it turns out—is not a detective, but a screenwriter working on a film project that is a meditation on both Marilyn Monroe (who died the previous year) and Helen of Troy.
The script drifts, utterly unmoored, between the two, their lives, ambitions, beliefs, and the men, dramas, and in Helen’s case war. Misogyny, ambition, and marriage pulse as themes.
As the play progresses, Whishaw, darting here and there, gradually changes into Monroe—via breast and buttock padding, make up and a wig—until finally putting on a dress that recalls the famous flowing white dress Monroe wore in The Seven Year Itch. As Monroe, we hear of the actress’ private pain; there are pills, a champagne bottle that stubbornly refused to pop open (how symbolic that seemed on Saturday night), and then death.
Alongside Whishaw, Fleming sings beautifully, sometimes echoes of the text, sometimes not. It’s not entirely clear who she is (a co-writer? a secretary?). There is also mention of Menelaus, Helen of Troy’s husband and Hermione, her daughter (although in the haze of the play, you may be forgiven for thinking the play is speaking of a Monroe daughter called Hermione, when she didn’t have one).
The result is an impressionistic Pandora’s Box, known only to itself. Whishaw and Fleming do not perform badly; what on earth they are performing is the issue, and it is baffling that nobody at some point in the rehearsal process put a hand in the air and said, “Excuse me, what the hell is this about? And shouldn’t we at least make it wholly audible?”
When Whishaw’s character asks, “Do we leave now?” it may take great collective inner strength for an audience not to respond, “Excellent question, can we?”
If only somebody had asked in creating this play: who are these characters, where are they, what are they doing, what is this about, how can we make it clearer to the audience?
It shouldn't be philistinish to expect some degree of clarity from even the most experimental theatrical piece. The people who walked out on Saturday night didn’t want to when they took their seats. They didn’t expect to. Ninety minutes isn’t that long to sit and watch some theatre, but—as the audience exodus reveals—what should have been a triumphant heralding of a major new Manhattan theatre space turned out to be the absolute, thudding opposite.
Mrs. Murray’s Menagerie
Everything is so understated in Ars Nova's Mrs Murray’s Menagerie (Ars Nova at Greenwich House, 27 Barrow Street, to April 27) directed by Lila Neugebauer, that you don’t realize how brilliant You Sin-Chen and Laura Jellinek’s set is. It really does feel like a drab meeting room where a focus group are meeting to discuss their feelings about a popular children’s television show.
The unseen producers of the show want to create a spin-off from it: Candace’s Closet or Teddy’s Treehouse. This focus group—made up of the all-excellent Philip James Brannon, Joe Curnutte. Michael Dalto, Carmen M. Herlihy, January LaVoy, and Stephanie Wright Thompson—will help change that.
This Mad Ones' production is just as subtle and direct in its wonderful writing and characterization. Focus group questioner Dale (a drily unreadable Brad Heberlee) has an assistant Jim (an earnest and nervy Marc Bovino) who must write comically quickly on a blackboard all the group’s responses to questions (he is so fast he earns our applause).
There are no big emotional speeches by any members of this group, but instead we watch a steady accumulation of life detail and tensions around sexism and racism that simmer while questions about the show are asked and answered. It's both very funny and extremely excruciating.
Just why is Mrs. Murray so benign? Who is their favorite character? In answering what is asked of the group, Roger will reveal himself to be a creepy mansplainer; Gloria someone who wants to be listened to; Celeste as an assertive mother; Wayne a gruff, slightly menacing dad; Ernest, watchful and direct; and June, who wants to believe the best in people. We never see the characters fully, but we see a tantalizing approximation of who they may be, and what they would show of themselves in a focus group setting.
There are unseen problems in marriages and a growing sense of anger towards Roger. But nothing erupts in this focus group; the focus is on a flowing, then tightening, set of group dynamics. Our eyes flick to the minute shifts of expressions and reactions. Mrs. Murray's Menagerie is both plain and intriguing—and no walkouts.