… five good performers in search of a play …
I loved the idea of this show which is subtitled An Epic Tale of Fictional Lives Intertwined with 90-year-old Landmark Theater New York City Center, a building that’s played such a rich role in the life and particularly the performing arts life on New York City. And the idea that the word “architecture” would have meaning both in terms of the building and in terms of individual lives sounded exciting.
Before the play begins, a portion of The Sheik, the silent film of 1921 with
Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres is projected repetitively — fun to watch but … why? Perhaps it was referencing that City Center was first built in 1923 in a Moorish style for the Shriners who called it the Mecca Temple, although Valentino’s seduction of Ayres seemed worlds away from the mystic goings-on of the all-male Shriner organization. Like most of what followed in fast-moving, quick changes, it gave the sense that it was there just because somebody wanted it there, not for any driving artistic reason.
From the film the play moves to an intended unifying premise: Siempre Norteada, played by Claudia Acosta, a writer of Mexican descent from Texas announces that she has won a commission to write this play about City Center but, she tells us, she’s only been in NYC a short time, and doesn’t know where to begin or what to write. Oh oh. And sure enough, from here, the play dissolves into a series of episodes of lives in which for the most part the relationship to City Center or to one another is largely incidental.
The vignettes are very well performed by Claudia Acosta, Vanessa Kai, Christopher Livingston, Jon Norman Schneider, and Danielle Skraastad who make impressive switches from one type of character to another. Vanessa Kai, for instance, moves from conveying a deferent Japanese housewife through a stoop in the shoulders and mask-like facial control to an all-out street kid from the wild side. In her Japanese woman mode, she gets a job sweeping up at City Center but that’s incidental — in terms of her own life, she could have been sweeping anywhere.
One episode is particularly moving — a real highlight. Christopher Livingston plays a Black street kid hanging around outside of City Center, chalking on the tall doors the names of the great composers whose music filters from inside — Bellini, Puccini and — with a wonderful flourish of the accent mark — Dvorák! It’s all in graffiti style but perfectly spelled and known, a beautiful, signifying tension. The dramatization of the outsider yearning for what is within the doors that keep out as well as let in is powerful.
The lives touched on are only glimpsed, however, and are mainly disconnected one from another, so the promise of locating some kind of structure in movement through life — the “architecture of becoming” — is not fulfilled. And the connections between the individuals to City Center are so loose that the play lacks its own architecture. Siempre Norteada, who tells us she doesn’t know how to begin her play also, as she says, doesn’t have an ending for it. The playwright (there are actually 5 of them, maybe that’s part of the problem) has given sketches of a number of lives in NYC, some interesting, some less so. There are some touching moments but the Center does not hold.
The Architecture of Becoming plays at New York City Center on West 55th Street in Manhattan through March 23, 2014.