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A CurtainUp Review
Wang Dang

by Les Gutman

If you've ever thought it might be fun to be a fly on a motel room wall, Tom Noonan will give you a chance to find out. Chairs line the walls of his newly-rebuilt Paradise Theater (mostly in a single row); the seating demarcates the walls of the inexpensive chain motel room in which the play is set.

Two things are most notable about Noonan's work. The first is his process: his plays are in the nature of a trial run for his films. He has done well by this play-to-film approach in both media. The Wife (originally called Wifey), won an Obie; What Happened Was... won the best film prize from the Sundance Grand Jury. Wang Dang will also be filmed, most likely with the same cast and dialogue as the stage version.

The second is his style. Ironically perhaps, it's not at all "cinematic," tilting instead to the opposite extreme. The action takes place entirely in real time, and in real space. The set is a precise replication (minus the walls which align with the audience's eyes) of the motel room: not only is the motel furniture "real," it is placed where it "really" would be. (Action takes place in the midst of the furniture, not in front of it.) There is no stage lighting; only the ambient light of the motel room lights is provided. There is no background music.

Also distinctive is Noonan's dialogue, which is sometimes jarringly real. Speech is tentative -- there are no glib, well-considered statements. Characters speak while seemingly processing and absorbing what others are saying, while their own thoughts are still being processed. This is a mixed blessing: as effective and intriguing as it can be, it can also be tedious. Such is reality; characters can be at a loss for words and the playwright doesn't provide them or edit out the pregnant pauses.

Noonan's well crafted story operates on at least three levels. Each embellishes the others:
  1. There is the story that plays out before our eyes. Mickey Hounsell (Noonan) is a filmmaker who has come to a film school to speak. A student working on her film thesis, Deana (Tristine Skyler), comes to Hounsell's motel room on the pretense of having him view her project. Though the film is never seen, the sexual energy is palpable. Just at the wrong (or right, depending on your perspective) moment, a school acquaintance of Deana's, Kim (Missi Pyle), materializes at the motel room door for a visit. Kim seems far more interested in Deana than in either filmmaking or Mr. Hounsell. (I'll leave the progression of this pas de trois to your imagination.)
  2. Beneath the simplicity, Noonan has supplied a treasure trove of hints of enormous complexity, but they are elliptical by design: subtext is more often drawn in pencil than in ink. The audience must assess, make assumptions, perhaps jump to conclusions, just as the characters do.
  3. Wang Dang also explores, and plays with, perceptions vs. reality. Hounsell lives as if life is a film: act as you wish to be perceived. Deana thinks she knows him because she has seen his films. Kim asks ques"tions: "Are you being sincere?" ""Are you messing with me?" Then Hounsell asks, "Is what I think is going on, going on?""Noonan also has great fun underscoring this theme with a word game. Deana's film is Penal Eyes, not, as Hounsell thinks, Penalize, which invites his attention to a raft of these homonymic hybrids.
The perfectly-cast actors are excellent. The character Noonan has supplied for himself is richly woven: nervous, uncomfortable, lonesome, goofy, defeated.... Every nuance resonates in his portrayal. The two women are less fully examined, but their performances are convincing and buttress the integrity of the work.

There is not a great deal to say about the sets and costumes. This is a play in which creativity in these crafts should not show, and that it does not denotes success.

A word to the wise: This is a show for which arriving late or leaving early (or temporarily) could be awkward. A program note reminds in big letters that it lasts one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.

Written and directed by, and starring, Tom Noonan 
with Tristine Skyler and Missi Pyle 
Set and Costume Design by Kathryn Nixon 
Paradise Theater, 64 East 4th Street (212) 354-2220 
1/29/98-2/28/98; opens 2/05
Reviewed 2/05 by Les Gutman

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