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The Singing Forest

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Susan Pourfar, Jonathan Groff, and Olympia Dukakis
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The Singing Forest, the play by Craig Lucas at The Public Theater's Martinson Hall, does not have a subtitle. But if it did, it could credibly be, "A gay fantasia on international themes." Lucas's always-sprawling and frequently stumbling mini epic doesn't share many specifics with Tony Kushner's Angels in America (which uses the above subtitle, minus the inter), but it seems to have been written, directed (by Mark Wing-Davey), and acted to show us that Lucas is as capable as Kushner of telling a big story, well, bigly. And perhaps he is. But this frenetic mess of a show doesn't make a compelling case.

Instead, like Lucas's last outing (Prayer for my Enemy, which premiered last year at Playwrights Horizons), it suggests that Lucas is better suited to big ideas writ small. In plays like Prelude to a Kiss, Reckless, and Small Tragedy, he's shown his underhanded talent for making topical mountains into perfectly sized and tightly packed theatrical molehills. But the plethora of topics he's tackling in The Singing Forest, which runs nearly three hours (with two intermissions) and still feels hurried and harried, aren't defined or situated confidently enough to amount to a hill of beans.

In New York City, a struggling actor named Gray (Jonathan Groff) is in therapy with two different psychologists: Dr. Oliver Pfaff (Mark Blum) and Shar Unger (Rob Campbell), both of whom are attracted to him. They're also ex-boyfriends, united by Laszlo Fickes (Randy Harrison), who used to be with Shar but is now with Oliver. Gray, however, is straight, and living with his girlfriend, Beth (Susan Pourfar), who works at a Starbucks with Laszlo. Beth is pregnant with Gray's child, which could be great if Gray could commit to anyone - including himself.

But no: Lately, he's been running errands for Jules Ahmad (Louis Cancelmi), the billionaire heir to a Middle Eastern fortune and pivot point of a world-rocking scandal, that utilize perhaps too many of his role-playing talents. Jules, who's gay, doesn't know that Gay, whom he's in love with, isn't. Gray, in fact, is so addicted to sex yet deprived of emotional connection that he starts calling an enigmatic phone sex line operated by an older Jewish woman, Loë Rieman (Olympia Dukakis), who fled Austria during World War II but couldn't escape the tragic events she set in motion before she left.

That's when things get complicated. And no, I'm not kidding.

Despite Lucas's obvious labor at hammering the play into New York-able shape since its 2004 premiere at Seattle's Intiman Theatre, it still feels unfinished. Each slickly written scene feels too short or too long, as if it knows neither what to say nor how to say it. The play does a 180-degree style shift halfway through, morphing from a steel-belted contemporary slice-of-life into an all-out farce complete with slamming doors and mistaken identities; the change itself is never justified by anything that happens, and it's followed soon after by yet another thematic transformation. Then there are all those plot threads, which intertwine, tangle, and fray as they try to reconcile rapid vacillations of location from New York to Vienna to London from 1933 to 2000, but inhabit no identifiable locale or era.

Lucas has locked onto an interesting underlying concept in comparing the horrors of Holocaust Europe with current America's treatment of and approach toward homosexuality; given the ever-simmering issue of gay marriage, this sort of examination couldn't be more timely. But he deals with it so obliquely and randomly that it never has the chance to cohere. By the time Lucas introduces a full second cast of characters from Loë's youth to help develop the background of his plot, he's already juggling so much that he doesn't have the time to devote to them, either.

Considering that the play's climax involves the full company spending the better part of 10 minutes sorting through their jumbled relationships, it's fair to say there's just too much going on. Wing-Davey does not discourage this in his staging, which treats much of New York as a cacophonous, drunken fever dream punctured by only tiny pockets of lucidity. John McDermott's set, which lurches between post-modern minimalism, Molière-ready, and full-out Viennese conservatory drama, doesn't help center the action.

In fairness, The Singing Forest probably can't be centered in the traditional sense. It wants to explore so many angles to so many questions that finding a single conceptual foundation is probably not possible. But without it, this feels like a collection of short, unrelated plays rushed through by actors who don't understand how any of what they do affects the show as a whole. Groff is charming as the young man on the brink of a personal abyss, Dukakis brings a brittle desperation to the wounded and wounding Loë, and just about everyone else has a sparkling moment or two. But they're like passersby on the New York City streets: there one minute, gone the next, and more ghostly images than tangible, corporeal figures.

It's the ability to keep sight of characters' latent humanity that energizes and unifies sweeping studies such as Kushner's two-part, six-hour magnum opus, or Tracy Letts's marathon-length hit, August: Osage County. Without it, those onstage can move about or say as much as they please, but they're always going to feel more like pieces on a board than people of burning needs and frustrations who are unable to find solace in others in the too-busy world in which they've been dropped.

"Before long, they seem to belong very much in the title place, a fixture in Loë's nightmare: "I dream about a forest," she says, lost in an agonizing reverie while on the phone with Gray. "Made from the voices of all the creatures who will ever be born, have ever lived. I walk through their voices, every bit of life vibrating with the music of, the moans of the tortured." Lucas may have captured that music, but he's barely scratched the surface of its song.

The Singing Forest
Through May 17
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Public Theater

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