One might not readily associate half-naked writhing on a table with Greek drama. Yet by the time Tony Torn strips off his pants and climbs onto one of the two banquet tables on the Classic Stage Company's stage, it's become strangely correct. Or at least it seems so in the compelling curiosity that is Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper's Fragment.
The character Torn has been playing all evening is an inebriate, a glutton, and a womanizer who'd prefer to spend his life grooving awkwardly to music while the world falls apart around him. When he drunkenly clears that table so that he may wallow in the pleasure of himself, you might find yourself recoiling in laughter or disgust, but it's hard to question his methodology: He'll die anyway, so why not enjoy the time he has left?
Never mind that he's been doomed for nearly three millennia.
Copper has compiled the show's text from bits and pieces of the 5,000 extant lines and speeches from the vast catalogs of Sophocles's and Euripides's plays that no longer exist whole. (That's some 113 from the former, and 71 or so from the latter.) With the help of director Liska, she's fashioned an event tracking how three people (played by Torn, Zachary Oberzan, and Juliana Francis) interact at an upscale cocktail party, making small talk about the state of humanity and the world while an incomprehensible war rages outside.
It's familiar territory, true, and inescapably inorganic here. As Copper has militantly manipulated the text she uses, cutting from longer speeches where they exist, excising two words from one phrase here and five words from another phrase there, and pasting them together in a very specific order, the comparisons between Ancient Greece and 2006 New York are in no way accidental. This is an unavoidably fabricated experience.
Yet it's also a surprisingly affecting one, transcending the not-so-vague pretensions of its graduate school-like thesis to ultimately arrive at something more truthful and immediate. There's no coherent narrative to follow; there's no narrative at all. But as the three unnamed characters discuss the relative merits of love and life, war and peace, and other topics as important to Greeks as to us, the fragments' insight and lyricism, as filtered through Liska's direction, make for an involving show.
When Francis speaks of sending her sons to war to protect the larger population of her city, it's as inspiring a case as we've heard made since the War on Terror put the issue on every newspaper's front page. When statements such as "No city can be safe in which justice and good sense can be trampled underfoot" or "free men have free tongues" are uttered, you can't help but bristle with recognition. And Torn's expounding on the virtues of cake as a vital earthly pleasure are as thoughtful as they are funny.
Even potentially hackneyed moments can prove startling, as when lighting designer Tim Cryan extinguishes all but one of his house lights (otherwise on for the entire show) to denote an impending threat, or shuts off every light in the theater to bring even closer to us the conflict dividing the characters. Liska utilizes such tricks so sparingly against his manically naturalistic staging that they all but disarm skepticism.
What does not, however, is the acting, which is across-the-board unconvincing. No one speaks his or her lines, but rather intones them as if their very presence entitles them to multiple layers of otherwise unjustified meaning. The poetry of the language, the stark look of Liska's staging, and the elegant everyday costumes (by Oana Botez-Ban) all provide the necessary context, but in trying to top this, the actors bottom out, looking less like articulate observers of the human condition than drunken accountants at an office holiday party.
The worst offender is Torn, playing the raging libido to Oberzan's smoldering fire and Francis's common sense. He spits out his lines marinated in streams of saliva, never looking like a human being as much as an out-of-control automaton. His castmates' stiffness is almost pleasant in comparison, though they're no better at drawing you into the show's world.
Still, seeing Torn roll about on that table, Oberzan crush a plastic wine cup on his forehead in a display of misguided machismo, or Francis angrily rail against both men for their unwanted advances all drive home Liska and Copper's real point that the more things change, the more they stay the same. At its frequent best, Fragment proves that you can derive quite a bit from almost nothing. But at their even more frequent worst, the actors prove that a sure thing - even from Sophocles and Euripides - is never a guarantee.