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People Be Heard

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Did you know that one person can change the world? Hard as it may be to believe, that does in fact seem to be the case. Whether it involves conquering aliens or casting the deciding vote on whether to allow even the slightest mention of evolution in a school's science textbooks, one person's influence truly can be important and valuable to society.

For those of you surprised by this information, you might well love the new Playwrights Horizons production of Quincy Long's People Be Heard. For everyone else, it's going to be a harder sell. The play, which also features original music by Michael Roth, doesn't have many ideas to express beyond this one, but addresses the many facets of its central hot-button issue (evolution, not aliens) in a thoughtful and even-handed way. It might even give a few moments pause to anyone who thinks he or she has all the answers.

Probably not, though, as the play greatly lacks flavor and distinction in almost every other area. While this is partially attributable to the uncomfortable direction provided by Erica Schmidt, Long's haphazard combination of so many different ingredients is primarily responsible for this hard-to-digest theatrical stew. Evolution, religion, adultery, stripping... Long seems determined to go to any lengths to get a rise - of one kind or another - out of the audience.

He approaches the interesting only occasionally, and then only when dealing with the school board members at the heart of the controversy. Don Mesner (Conrad John Schuck), Jim Schuler (Dashiell Eaves), Earl Frye (Guy Boyd), Linda Vobiato (Kathy Santen), and Rita Dell Delaney (Funda Duval) are all given strong perspectives on the subject: The first four members are deadlocked, Don and Jim against the evolution mention and Earl and Linda for it. Rita - who was recently added to the board under questionable circumstances - must make up her mind and break the tie, thus providing Long his inroad to tackling the issue.

As long as Long sticks with the discussions about it - which also involve public school board meetings, at which community members can and do participate in the "People Be Heard" segments - he's on solid enough ground. But subplots revolving around other things like a student's sexual abuse, possible impropriety with regard to Rita's position on the school board, or Rita's tempestuous relationship with her husband and her new love interest do very little to illuminate the central conflict and provide little in the way of other enlightenment or entertainment.

Much the same can be said of Roth's songs, often used as interludes to cover scene changes, or to comment in the Brechtian style so popular with those who have trouble devising a style of their own. From a musicalization of the Pledge of Allegiance to a paean about the virtues of the school board, from diegetic numbers set in the Wiggle Room strip club to Rita's decision-making song about her evolution vote, the numbers have something of a home-spun, middle-American quality, but are neither memorable nor notably tuneful. At least the accompaniment provided by Steve Tarshis and Jonathan Dinklage - primarily played on a variety of string instruments - helps provide some atmosphere.

Of the performers, only Annie Golden - in a variety of ensemble roles, including Lady Justice - seems to be enjoying herself; from the Wiggle Room manager to a concerned religious teen and a no-nonsense scientist, she's given opportunities the other performers aren't. Laura Heisler forces a few laughs out of her school board stenographer character, but is less effective as Rita's young son. The rest of the cast never feels as if it's being put to proper use.

Schmidt has her hands full just keeping everything under control, and she does a decent job. The show never moves sluggishly, but Schmidt also never brings an original point of view or consistency of tone to it that might help smooth over some of the script's rougher edges. Christine Jones's school auditorium set is basically if blandly effective, and Michelle R. Phillips's costumes and Michael Lincoln's lights make their presence felt without ever making much of an impression.

But what of the play's alien visitor? The character, named Ekaraxu (brought to life physically by Golden and vocally by Brian Hutchison), is a manifestation of the fears Rita's son has of making his own voice heard above the crowd. The vision of Ekaraxu's menacing green visage does perk up the play and provide some nice visual variety, though it's most striking as a reminder that the rest of People Be Heard - however relevant parts of it might be - is pretty much hopelessly earthbound.

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Playwrights Horizons
People Be Heard
Through October 10
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Playwrights Horizons' Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4200