The truth about one-person shows
One-Person Shows. They are the theater equivalent of locusts, except they don't descend upon us every seven years. No. They arrive, it seems, every seven days. Or less! Right now, there are one-person shows to the left of us; one-person shows to the right of us. Into the Valley of Boredom, ride the two critics. Okay, the meter is less than perfect, but you get the drift ...
The reason we see so many of these "singular" performances is obvious: they're cheap to produce. Beyond that, ambitious actors come to learn that if they aren't getting work, they may have to write their own plays. And if you write a solo show, you've got a better chance of getting it on because ... back to square one: it's cheap!
The catch is that one needs more than talent to pull off a one-person show; one needs perfection or something pretty damned close to it. A gifted actor with a weak script will perish in a one-person show. A bad actor with a script written by God, Him or Her self cannot succeed. And please, please, please, choose a worthy subject or don't even bother in the first place.
In our last column we wrote a laudatory review of Not a Genuine Black Man, a one-person show with a fresh subject, a solid actor, and an excellent script. The criteria were well met. We were thrilled. But the truth is that we rarely go to a one-person show with much enthusiasm (admit it; you feel the same, ditch?). That's not to say we aren't often won over – this is New York, after all, where the best people come to work. And, hey, if it's Billy Crystal or John Leguizamo, sure we're excited, but that's not what we're talking about. What we're talking about are plays like the three we just saw this past week. Oh, by the way, we'll keep this short because as much as people resist one-person shows, they are even less inclined to read about them.
This play should be Annulled
Apparently Emily Mann, the Artistic Director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton for the last sixteen years, had to get Annulla (2 Stars) off her chest. Based on her search in 1974 for her Jewish roots in pre-war Europe, the closest Mann could find to her own family was her best friend's aunt who had survived the Holocaust and was living in England. The woman's name was Annulla. We grant you that Annulla had some amazing stories to tell. But they aren't told well. At least not in this production.
Directed with excruciating fussiness by Pamela Hall and acted with a numbing vocal sameness by Eileen De Felitta as the title character, this is an earnest Holocaust story that's as flat as a matzo. The best thing about it is the set design by ccc. Never a good sign.
Two Brits: Two Plays
The Brits Off Broadway Festival at the 59E59 Theaters offers two one-person shows on the same evening: Private Peaceful followed by Cloudburst. The first is about ninety minutes and the second is a welcome forty minutes in length. Both are far superior to Annulla, but neither one of them reaches that level of excellence that makes you really glad you went to the theater; instead, you just feel a bit self-righteous for having done your theatrical duty.
Private Peaceful (3 Stars) features Alexander Campbell as the title character, plus quite a few other folks, recalling over the course of one long night the pivotal moments of his life - as he awaits his death at dawn by firing squad. Private Peaceful is set during World War I and it's a rather straightforward story of a decent if overly innocent young boy who is, perhaps throughout his entire life, in way over his head.
There is an inevitable sadness about this story, originally a young adult novel by adapted for the stage and directed by Simon Reade with a remarkable degree of authenticity, even though all of it must be acted by the very singular Mr. Campbell. The only notable flaw in his performance is a tendency to bug out his eyes at us way too often to express the character's youthful intensity. Nonetheless, while we couldn't call it "entertaining" – given its subject matter – it is certainly engaging.
By the way, the play is intended, in part, to shame the English authorities into pardoning the innocent victims – some 300 young British soldiers – who were executed for cowardice when, in fact, they were often merely innocent, confused kids who were made examples of in order to keep the rest of the soldiers in line. But if you're looking for a World War I story about bad top leadership and innocent young soldiers, rent the film Paths of Glory directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas. It's a French story, not an English story. But it's got more than one person in it.
Cloudburst (2 ½ Stars) has nothing to do with Private Peaceful - except that it's acted by one person, the very talented Graeme Hawley, who plays a father distraught over the careless mistake he made that led to the murder of his young daughter. The play is nearly done-in from the start by writer/director Chris O'Connell who tries to jump start the piece with a rush of words and images that seem more "arty" than felt. The writing gets more naturalistic as the play goes on, and Hawley keeps it real and grounded by virtue of a performance that is, at once, charming and tortured.
The most compelling and original aspect of Cloudburst is the father's symbiotic relationship with the press. The need for the victim's family to express their feelings to the world – and the loss of that ability when the story is suddenly no longer news – is like drug withdrawal. That part of the story is riveting. The rest, while exceptionally well-acted throughout by Hawley, is finally overwritten.
[Please note: The Siegel Column is using a 5 star rating system with 5 being its highest rating.]
-- Barbara and Scott Siegel