Off Broadway Reviews
Out of My Mind
Presidential contenders on both sides of the aisle have been acting as though the world will end if Hillary Clinton is sent to the White House next year, but they're probably not expecting literal Armageddon. Nevertheless, that's the subject of Hillary Agonistes, the stammering tolerance treatise by Nick Salamone that's playing as part of this year's New York International Fringe Festival. Just months after taking office in 2009, the new President Clinton is faced with a catastrophe of Biblical proportions: 65 million people, in every country and of every walk of life, have vanished off the face of the Earth, leaving only their clothes and a terrified populace behind. To make matters worse for Madam President: Bill is among the vanished.
This, however, is not a whodunit. Exactly what happened is at best a side issue - the play is far more concerned in speculating on the ramifications of the crisis for both Hillary herself and the world at large. The implications, which range from the political (an off-the-cuff use of the word "antichrist" ignites global outrage) to the personal (daughter Chelsea, now married to a Muslim and wearing a burqa, is outraged with her mother's actions), could circumscribe a fascinating drama about one of the most polarizing public figures of our time. But Salamone's treatment, despite nods to John Milton's classic tragedy Samson Agonistes in everything from the title on down, resonates less as a complex portrait of a complicated woman than as a satirical rant against the political process in general.
Salamone himself even appears onstage in a series of firmly ribbing guises like current New York mayor Michael Bloomberg (Hillary's Secretary of the Treasury), evangelist Pat Robertson, a flouncy cardinal, and Dr. Stephen Hawking. But these cameos add less texture to the play than they do present the Oval Office as a revolving-door menagerie of the ridiculous. So it's not that easy to take even the more straightforward characters seriously: Both Chelsea and Hillary's chief of staff are given on-point, matter-of-fact portrayals by Rebecca Metz and Jean Gilpin, but fade to bullet-point irrelevancy in the larger story that's never quite told to completion.
As for Hillary herself, she's played by Priscilla Barnes with a definite air of strait-laced occasion that instantly makes you forget the nurse she played for several years on TV's Three's Company. Barnes finds every ounce of the weight under which Hillary is living, but delivers a remarkably supple performance that's thematically correct for a woman who's gained both fame and infamy by being all things to all people. She does not, however, much suggest the real Hillary Clinton, whose mixture of warmheartedness, icy ambition, and laserlike determination has earned her so many followers and enemies. But that's not Barnes's fault - Salamone has magnified the mythic at the expense of the realistic. He hasn't, however, demonstrated why the former is more apropos to Hillary Clinton. Maybe we'll only find out for sure in November of next year.
Running Time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Out of My Mind
Whether your own therapy is numbing or enlivening, chances are you don't want to share it with anyone else. That doesn't seem to apply to Marvin Novogrodski and Doug Vogel, who in their Fringe show Out of My Mind have apparently recreated (or at least reimagined) Novogrodski's own sessions for the stage. The degree to which you'll find it interesting is directly related to your capacity for absorbing strangers' stories about their families, childhoods, relationships, and emotional goals, and whether you think an hour is sufficient to get to know anyone well enough to care.
The format allows little room for rich narrative, so Novogrodski's reminiscences, about topics as diverse as his Russian-Jewish family and his illegitimate son, don't pack much of a punch. Nor does Novogrodski, who despite boasting of 20 years with Rhode Island's Everett Dance Theatre in his program bio, comes across as unyielding and unengaging onstage, more about posing and creating images than revealing himself and his journey to us. Vogel, who plays Novogrodski's therapist both in the show and supposedly in real life, brings a more vibrant energy to the proceedings that makes Out of My Mind a slightly easier sit.
But while you're watching it, you're most aware of the theatrical possibilities that are touched on but never explored in depth. Hypnosis and suggestion are crucial to Vogel and Novogrodski's respective arts, but play only bit parts when they could be full-out costars. (Exchanges about itchy underwear, with real running-gag potential, are at best a dead end.) Focusing more on these elements might detract from what Novogrodski is trying to say, but they could just as easily help humanize him in ways his controlled outbursts of therapy-inspired revelations cannot.
During the very few times he does let us see who he really is, the results are charming: A 30-second, virtuosic juggling act, for example, is the highlight of the evening, and feels more innately Novogrodski than most of the lines he speaks. Glimpses like this into his soul, more than trips into his mind, suggest Novogrodski might be a worthy subject of a show after all. Out of My Mind, however, seldom seems like the one.
Running Time: 60 minutes with no intermission