How many times have theatergoers, halfway through a boring or inexplicable play, fantasized that the author walked onstage and explained what exactly the hell he or she was thinking? Jordan Harrison fulfills that wish in his new drama about an itinerant band of performers wandering through Europe in the 14th century during the Black Plague. Unfortunately, this intervention in The Amateurs, receiving its world premiere at the Vineyard Theatre, raises more questions than it answers.
It isn’t Harrison himself who actually appears onstage. Rather, it’s Michael Cyril Creighton, a member of the ensemble, who suddenly emerges in modern dress, or, as he puts it, a “faithful reproduction of his drab, post-hipster Brooklyn uniform” (complete with ramen stains).
The “Playwright” says he thought it would be a good idea to address the audience directly because, as he sheepishly admits, “ticketholders have been voting with their feet.” (What he doesn’t say is that the evening’s intermission was removed during previews, presumably to prevent that very occurrence.)
He proceeds to tell us what inspired the play, linking it to the AIDS epidemic that swept through the gay community in his younger years. He tells the story of so-called “Patient Zero” Gaetan Dugas, who supposedly brought the illness to America; talks about discovering that one of his high school teachers was gay; and delivers an art history lesson about the shifting portrayal of the individual in Western art, using paintings of the Madonna from different periods to make his point.
Shortly afterwards, another performer, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, comes out to deliver a monologue relating to her experience playing Mrs. Cratchit in a regional theater production of A Christmas Carol. She recounts how she felt lost in the minor role until she imagined that her character was omnisciently controlling the events. The theme of her story is that human beings need to feel they at least have some power over what happens to them. We know this because she says so, which is just one example of how The Amateurs more often relies on telling than showing.
While this breaking of the fourth wall ultimately proves more gimmicky than enlightening, it does at least provide a respite from the tedious goings-on in the main story, as the theatrical troupe attempts to outrun the deadly contagion while performing such morality plays as Cain and Abel, Before the Fall and Noah’s Flood on a portable stage.
Led by the pompous Larking (Thomas Jay Ryan), who naturally reserves the role of God for himself, the group includes his pregnant lover Rona (Jennifer Kim); Hollis (Bernstine), whose brother Henry has recently died from the disease; Brom (Kyle Beltran), who was secretly sexually involved with Henry; Gregory (Creighton), the stage manager and propmaker; and a new recruit, a Jewish doctor referred to as the Physic (Greg Keller).
While the play features some clever moments — including the actors playing the Seven Deadly Sins with the aid of elaborate masks, and praying to different saints depending on their particular problem — it mostly feels lifeless and heavy-handed. Lengthy scenes presenting the performances of the religious plays, including one staged for the pleasure of an unseen Duke that the troupe hopes will become their patron, make the proceedings feel even more interminable. And the deliberately anachronistic language, including such modern jargon as “la-la land” and heavy doses of profanity, proves further alienating.
Harrison — a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his sci-fi drama Marjorie Prime, later turned into an acclaimed 2017 film starring Jon Hamm and Lois Smith — displays no shortage of imagination here. Unfortunately, despite the fine performances by the ensemble, the effective staging by Oliver Butler and the striking scenic and costume designs of David Zinn and Jessica Pabst, respectively, this thematically ambitious effort feels a complete misfire.
Venue: Vineyard Theatre, New York
Cast: Kyle Beltran, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Michael Cyril Creighton, Greg Keller, Jennifer Kim, Thomas Jay Ryan
Playwright: Jordan Harrison
Director: Oliver Butler
Set designer: David Zinn
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting designer: Jen Schriever
Music and sound designer: Bray Poor
Presented by Vineyard Theatre