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A CurtainUp Review

Book of the Dead (Second Avenue)

By Les Gutman

Book of the Dead (Second Avenue) is the much-anticipated new work of John Moran, a downtown artist who has now gained the attention of larger institutional non-profit theaters (the Public Theater, in this case, producing a work originally commissioned by Lincoln Center). Although it has its appealing moments (about which more later), there is little evidence of the theatrical originality or intelligence that would justify the elevation. A lengthy feature/interview in the NY Times the day before the show opened -- usually a clarifying resource -- failed to enlighten it. If anything, it confirmed my worst fears: Moran doesn't make much of a case for his effort, which is workmanlike at best, derivative and superficial at worst. 

The "book"" consists of three chapters. The first (called "The Ancient Egyptians") considers the vague outlines of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, handsomely played out behind a scrim onto which various slides are projected. The last (called "The Wheel of Existence") purports to give similar treatment to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Both read like highly embellished high school pageants. 

The interior chapter is called "The Field of Time," but calling it "A Day in the Life of Second Avenue"" would be more descriptive. The main focus of Moran's attention is actually just a few blocks of Second Avenue in the East Village. While it is somewhat better than the sophomoric opening section, it is bereft of any trenchant observation. We are presumably to discover some "music" from its routines, but what we get is only the -- admittedly funny -- mundane. Moran has also found no way to tether this section to the overall theme. Here's what he said in the Times interview when asked about this: "It's meditating on death by not meditating on death but on what death is not, which is the music that we live in." Good grief.)

Moran seems inclined to call his productions "opera," but he also calls them "attractions." As if we are going on a series of rides at Disneyland, he suggests. Perhaps that's supposed to lower our expectations. If so, not far enough. 

One way in which opera can be distinguished from theater is that its cadence is strictly regulated. Once the conductor's baton marks the first note, what follows is dictated: a performer missing that beat will find him or herself lost in the following scene. In this sense, Moran's work would qualify as opera: he not only uses a prerecorded score, virtually every voice and sound effect we hear is recorded as well. (The actors are lip-synching.) By the same token, this renders it decidedly not like opera.

His day along Second Avenue is played out chronologically. The flow is interrupted to allow for its repetition. Moran's focus is on popular culture, in the first instance, and mass media as its engine. So we visit and revisit a fast-food restaurant (McDonald's), with Moran constructing, deconstructing and then reconstructing (from various perspectives) the sounds that we hear. This hunt for poetry in the way people talk is Moran's obsession. 

Moran evokes quite a good deal of recognitional laughter as he parodies things like the local TV news, Macy's commercials and the like, and tries to make some point or other with montages of NY Post front pages and TV commercials. He's particularly successful in applying his technique to a scene in a bar, in which the interaction of a bartender, her friends and a dweeby patron are played out over and again. But the whole is surely far less than the sum of its parts. 

I can't say that Moran is bad at what he does, but what's distressing is how thoroughly lacking  in fresh ideas his Book seems to be. His music, fairly pervasive and, well, not bad, follows themes without copying, but also without truly creating. He claims Philip Glass as his self-adopted mentor, but is a pale reflection. Visually, his work is eye-catching and, again, not bad, but anyone who knows the work of Bob McGrath (our review of his most recent NY work, Hypatia, is linked below) will see little here that is his own. (McGrath was Moran's usual director until the two had a falling out a few years ago.) 

Discovering music in our contemporary verbal poetry -- also not original -- would create a sparkle, but Moran's ear does not seem to be picking up many resonant sounds. I can marvel at Moran's technical achievement in integrating all sorts of sounds -- verbal and otherwise --into a sonic landscape (with much credit also owed to the performers and his co-designers), but this strikes me as similar to applauding an engineer for making a skyscraper stand, without acknowledging it is missing a talented architect to make it soar. 

I hate to humorize the point, but this Book of the Dead indeed is. Or maybe that is the point?

CurtainUp's review of Hypatia

BOOK OF THE DEAD (Second Avenue)
Created by John Moran
with Theo Bleckmann, Patricia R. Floyd, Darryl Gibson, Anthony Henderson, Michael Huston, John Moran, Laine Satterfield, Cabell Tomlinson, David West and M. Drue Williams
Narrated (on recording) by Uma Thurman
Set and Projection Design: John Moran
Lighting Design: Jonathan Spencer
Costume Design: James Schuette
Sound Design: Andrew Keister
Mask and Puppet Design: Cabell Tomlinson
Hair and Wig Design: Mitch Ely
Running time: 1 hour with no intermission
Public Theater Martinson Hall, 425 Lafayette Street (@ Astor Place) (212) 239-6200
Public Theater website:
Opened 11/20/2000; closing 12/17/2000 
Tues. - Sat. @8, Sat. - Sun. @ 2, Sun. @ 7 (no show on 11/23); $45 
Rush tickets 1/2 hour before curtain for non sold-out shows
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 11/18 performance

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