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The Chinese Art of Placement

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

If your life is a mess, have you considered that your furniture might be responsible? For Sparky Litman in Stanley Rutherford's play The Chinese Art of Placement at the 78th Street Theatre Lab, the right place to put a chair is less a matter of aesthetic concerns than a matter of life and death.

But for the concerned, this one-man show is less about arranging one's furniture according to the Chinese principles of Feng Shui than it is arranging life. Inside Sparky is something everyone can relate to; the insecurities, neuroses, and fears that may strive to make life an occasionally daunting proposition. That Rutherford has made such a serious exploration very funny is all the better - don't internal quandaries often seem funny outside the head?

Litman (played by T. Scott Cunningham) is a reformed poet who has recently burned all of his work and decided to start a new chapter in his life. He'll be more sociable, more open to others' feelings, and generally have a more positive outlook on life as soon as he can get that pesky chair placed. As he moves it around to various places in Adam Stockhausen's set - the position of Fame, the position of Knowledge, the position of Marriage, and so on - he sorts through his cluttered mind to relieve it of the weight of a lifetime of disappointments and failures, perceived or otherwise.

Rutherford's writing is, in general, perceptive: Sparky was alienated from his family, he was awkward and inarticulate as a child, he finds it difficult to deal with his apartment's ant infestation, and so on. (Most people may find it difficult to relate to Sparky's brief career as a spy infiltrating the heart of Communist Russia, however.) Rutherford has chosen an appropriate set of demons for Sparky to exorcise, barriers on the road to well-being.

Though Rutherford has defined Sparky well, Cunningham gives him likability and buoyancy. Rutherford's Sparky truly is an Everyman, as incapable (or unwilling) of dealing with life's roadblocks at first as nearly everyone is. His phone calls in an attempt to set up a party to celebrate his new outlook (including one to Tina Turner, whom he's long admired) suggest a belief and hope he can control his life, while his confrontation with the ants allows a window into how he will always deal with things beyond his control. However Cunningham plays a moment, it seems as if it could only happen exactly that way.

Still, running slightly less than an hour and a half, The Chinese Art of Placement seems a bit overlong. Jessica Bauman's direction handles the bigger moments well, but the transitional speeches that set them up sometimes lack focus. Parts of the show are also awkwardly paced, though this is a problem with the script as well - Rutherford doesn't set up moments as well as he might, so things occasionally seem a bit too free-floating, even for a stream-of-consciousness play such as this one.

But The Chinese Art of Placement moves well enough, and the play is never for a second boring or untrue to life. The Chinese Art of Placement remains light and enjoyable, an entertaining tribute to what may prove a surprisingly dark subject, the little things everyone depends on to get through their days.

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The Chinese Art of Placement
Through March 31
Running Time 90 minutes with no intermission
78th Street Theatre Lab, 236 West 78th Street
Schedlue and Tickets: (212) 206-1515