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A CurtainUp Review

The Director

John Shea in a
Svengali-like moment
with Tanya Clarke
As an admirer of actor John Shea's work, I went to see The Director with high expectations. Mr. Shea's does not disappoint. He brings the right degree of intensity to the role of a stage director whose uncompromising commitment to some most unusual experimental techniques have reduced him to working as a janitor in a rehearsal studio in exchange for the use of the space during its off hours. He gets better than solid support from the play's five other actors: Tasha Lawrence as a playwright who persuades him to direct her autobiographical play currently being ruined in the studio Shea is paid to keep clean; Tanya Clarke, Todd Simmons, Shula Van Buren and Warren Press as four actors willing to risk pain, humiliation, exhaustion for the chance to expand their thespian horizons.

But for all the talk about Gotowski (the Polish director legendary for radical departures from acting traditions), Nancy Hasty's characterization of a Gotowski-like director smacks more of a case study in psychotic behavior than that of a brilliant man who has nobly forfeited material success to pursue his vision for making theater. A more appropriate title would be Six Actors In Search of a Play Worthy of Their Talents.

As Peter (the director) inevitably fails to make a persuasive case for the method behind his mad and maddening mind games, Ms. Hasty 's script never achieves its goal of being a suspense drama. What she's given us is a talky and fairly predictable acting exercise. Lines such as "Actors should be like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames" make the audience feel more than a little included. They also make you almost agree with and applaud David Mamet who has expressed his belief that actors should just learn their lines.

One of the best scenes in another recent play about the theater, the short-lived Wrong Mountain, (our review) was a spoof on an obscure acting company. Ms. Hasty tries for a few funny touches but her attempts at comic relief are as doomed as her effort to leave us pondering how the boundaries of experimentation become barbed wire zones in the hands of someone as zealous as her hero, or to be more precise, her anti-hero. As long as I'm making comparisons, Wrong Mountain probably might have had a longer life if it had opened out of the harsh spotlight of Broadway. The Director is thus a much smarter production in the sense that it is making its debut in a small Off-Broadway venue.

Modest as the production is, audiences will find little to complain about in terms of its staging. In addition to the excellent performances, there's John Farrell's simple two-tiered set which, unlike the techniques being explored, is effectively realistic. And, unlike the fictional director, Evan Bergman does his level-headed best to give Ms. Hasty's play as much suspense and dramatic heft as her script allows.

Rachmaninoff's Concerto #2 provides enjoyable incidental music though it does nothing to clarify the business about Peter's unwillingness play the piano. Instead, it's likely to send us out of the ArcLight in search of a video version of the vastly more entertaining golden oldie The Seventh Veil.

Written by Nancy Hasty
Directed by Evan Bergman,

Starring: John Shea; co-starring Tasha Lawrence
With: Tanya Clarke, Todd Simmons, Shula Van Buren and Warren Press
Set Design: John Farrell
Lighting Design: Steve Rust
Costumes: Jill Kliber
Running time: 95 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
2/01/2000-3/30/2000; opens Feb. 15
Arclight Theatre, 152 W. 71st St. (West of Broadway), 279-4200
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/12 performance

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