Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Ants Fails to Fly
Also see Bob's review of Two Trains Running
Adult sisters Kara and Mia are émigrés from Eastern Europe. They live in what is described as "a beautiful four room house" (represented by a large, oddly shaped, multi-leveled sepia set that is intended to resemble a complex ant nest). Kara came to the States on her own, and worked in a factory in order to make the money to bring her younger sister Mia over. Kara is now pregnant. As the baby's father is married and Kara, the family breadwinner, has lost her job, she plans to have an abortion.
Mia is a PHD candidate in biochemistry and working on her dissertation project with Dr. Adam Kohn at the University (his father-in-law is University President). Kohn's sexual advances to Mia are abusive. Mia is dedicated to developing a procedure which will enable worker ants to be transformed into queens (Mia refers to Kara's fetus as a "pupa"). Her goal is to create a more democratic, humane lifestyle for the ants. In short order, we learn that Kohn (who emigrated from Eastern Europe 26 years ago) is the father of Kara's baby. In fact, he and his wife want to adopt the baby.
Mia enlists Kohn to aid her in preventing Kara from going through with her abortion, only to learn that Kara had advanced her appointment and had the abortion so as to thwart Mia's efforts. "Why should we reproduce to make workers?" Mia wants to give wings to humans. And Kara is about to move off to New York to spread her wings. Finally, there is concluding series of screwball comedy scenes involving Mia and Kohn's ant transformation project.
Stanescu is more interested in large issues and universal experiences than in depicting fleshed out characters and situations. Although one of her themes is the transformative powers of New York City, Stanescu never attempts to convey what it is that makes New York so special. Although, in what appears to be a grudging note in the program, the setting is described as "a small American town and a University in the same area. Maybe, CT," Stanescu never informs us where her play is set. In an interview, Stanescu states that the sisters are Eastern European for this production (I had assumed that because of the fact that the playwright is a Romanian native who came to the States on a Fulbright in 2001, and the sound of the accents employed for Mia and Kara indicate that they were Romanian). However, Stanescu states that she did not want to specify from where the sisters came as she wants Asians, Africans and Latinos and immigrants from everywhere in the word to play these roles. Need I note here that the greatest, most universal plays and protagonists are solidly grounded in specific cultures, backgrounds and situations.
Jeff Zinn directs at a good clip, eliciting strong performances from his three-member cast. Stanescu has placed what seems an insurmountable bar for any director with her inconsistency of tone and, in the case of Adam, character. Maria Silverman captures Mia's buoyancy while playing down her self-centered grandiosity. Carol Todd fully conveys the anger and frustration with which Kara has been drawn. Michael Samuel Kaplan displays a charming, deft comic touch in the play's final scenes. His Adam eschews what could only be a futile effort to resolve the inconsistencies in Stanescu's picture of him. Even Jessica Parks, New Jersey Rep's outstanding and reliable Scenic Designer, is off her game with what I presume to be the author's scenic concept which is a clever idea on paper that does not play well and makes us instinctively question the efficacy of Stanescu's connections between capitalism and the world of ants.
The late second act screwball comedy scenes, although not successful, make it clear that Ants is intended to be a comedy (albeit, a serious one with dark undertones). Rather than being satiric and droll as intended, the insect transformation descriptions bring to mind the nonsense of Grade Z science fiction movies, and the protagonists are not sufficiently fleshed out to arouse interest in them. The result is that the tedious and airless Ants is a vessel for a number of insufficiently fleshed out, but potentially complex and provocative, ideas in search of a play.
Ants continues performances(Evenings: Thursday-Saturday 8 pm / Matinees: Saturday 3 pm; Sunday 2 pm) through March 10, 2013 at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740; box office: 732-229-3166; online: www.njrep.org.
Ants by Saviana Stanescu; directed by Jeff Zinn