Friday, October 15, 2010

"Interview" leaves open questions

Controversy has an interesting way of melting into thin air sometimes. It's hard for contemporary audiences to imagine, for instance, why The Playboy of the Western World once provoked riots in Dublin. And something of the same aura of vanished cultural edge now surrounds Jean-Claude van Itallie's "Interview" (at left), which, as part of his trilogy of one-acts, American Hurrah, appeared to be storming some sort of barricade upon its premiere back in the 60's. Or maybe it just seemed that way because so many provocateurs were involved with the production: Joseph Chaikin, Robert Wilson, Alvin Epstein, and even James Coco and Al Pacino crossed paths with American Hurrah at one point or other.

But stripped of that incendiary mix of artists, and pulled from its roiling original milieu, "Interview" tends to look a bit thin; these days it plays more like a caustic theatre game than any kind of call to arms. Or at least that's how it feels in its new production by Heart and Dagger Productions, which closes this weekend at the BCA.

Full disclosure: I'm a friend of Joey Pelletier, a founding force of Heart and Dagger, director of "Interview," and a kind of floating player in the local fringe for some time now; I even cast him in my ill-starred production of Blowing Whistles for Zeitgeist Stage a few years back. Joey was a pleasure to work with then, and we've kept up with each other over the years - hey, he took his clothes off for my show, I owe him! And it's been easy duty, frankly, since he's a smart, talented, and sardonic free spirit (the hilarious title of his last effort alone, "Into the Fens," tells you as much).

But I don't think he has quite triumphed over the datedness of "Interview," which has been largely forgotten because - well, because it's just not as dramatically arresting as similar works of the period by Albee, Pinter or Ionesco. These days, it feels rather like an intriguing sketch of ideas that were in the air at the time, but were better developed by greater talents.

Which doesn't mean it's a drag, particularly not in Joey's lively, somewhat noisy version, which has been well-choreographed by Elise Weinter Wulff, and cast with a number of rising fringe talents. The script opens with a series of job interviews set in some Theatre-of-the-Absurd office where masked interviewers interrogate hapless applicants with intrusive questions, in which issues of dignity and identity seem to be increasingly at stake. It then morphs into a larger form of cultural interlocution: a woman desperately asks for directions on a chaotic city street; a man seeks solace from his psychiatrist; one lonely soul even begs for forgiveness for being alive. Beneath the relentless questioning, we begin to feel a menacing kind of void begin to open (when a woman explains that she's late to a party because she saw someone killed, there's a hint that she might be the dead girl in question). By the end of the piece, a kind of low-grade paranoia has taken hold of "society," and the actors march off in fascistic lockstep - as one low voice cries for help.

But it's this deeper sense of destabilization that the Heart and Dagger production pretty much misses; this version is marked by a smart, cynical energy that's a little too knowing and not nearly frightened enough.  Still, there are solid turns from many in the cast; Kiki Samko telegraphs a bit, but is always a lively presence, and there are subtly inflected performances from Amy Meyer, Tommy O'Malley, and Erin Rae Zalaski.  Fringe regular Mikey DiLoreto likewise entertains with his familiar sweet-but-strange enthusiasm.  Together these talents have devised a diverting introduction to van Itallie's text, but hardly a full exploration of it.

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