The Siegel Column

Cirque Dreams at the Broadway Theatre could not be a more colorful show; the costumes and set design literally glow in the dark. The rest, however, is pretty boring, not because the performers lack skill but because these critics, at least, have reached a saturation point for this kind of "circus" and we suspect a lot of other people are feeling much the same way. The acts are all variations on things we've seen before, and before, and before. Some of the acts certainly grab your attention and admirably fill the "wow" quotient, but they are far and few between. We have consistently seen smaller and less expensively priced family shows come in to the New Victory Theatre that are more imaginative and stylish than this over-produced mediocrity.

This "Cirque" is, of course, a rip-off of the original Cirque and we suspect the court case was probably more entertaining than this show itself. Mind you, we're not concerned one way or another about any audience confusion between the two entertainment entities. That's their affair, not ours. And we're grateful, at least, that this "Cirque" is on Broadway and not a schlep out to an island on the East River or a landfill in lower Manhattan. But at this point, Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey is looking pretty good.

Bash'd is a genuinely unique theater piece insofar as it's both an amazing tour de force and a flawed work of art. It is amazing to watch Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow in this rap operetta morph into a seemingly endless variety of characters as they tell their cautionary tale of love and hate. The two of them are endlessly impressive, with Craddock, in particular, giving an unforgettable performance.

Once one gets past the fireworks of the their performances—and the demands of the piece that require such terrific acting—there is the disquieting residue of a work that is more sizzle than actual meat. It's mighty flashy but, except for its obviously well meaning and heartfelt story and theme, the actual content is neither complex nor rich. What's complex and rich is the method by which a rather simple story is told of gay bashing and its consequences. Too bad the ending is over-extended and gets a bit cutesy and self-indulgent, but one forgives the excess because, in the final analysis, the actors manage to carry it off on sheer thespian prowess.

Moving from sexual politics to international politics brings us to Palace of the End, three thematically connected monologues written by Judith Thompson and performed by three superb actors, Teri Lamm, Rocco Sisto and Heather Raffo. Directed by Daniella Topol with a fierce intensity, each of these monologues deals, in one way or another, with the war in Iraq.

The first features Lamm as an American soldier who has become infamous for her outrageous behavior toward Iraqi prisoners. She explains to us what she did and why, but without remorse and with, in fact, a certain amount of defiance. She might be white trash, but she makes us think twice about a culture that created and sustains her. She is followed by Sisto who plays Dr. David Kelly, a British scientist who was on the team looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He knew the public was bamboozled and finally went public with his accusations, only to die under mysterious circumstances that some thought was suicide. Sisto's monumental performance, full of rage, self-hate and regret, raises some of the most challenging moral arguments in the piece, especially when he wonders aloud if the greatest sin is knowing the truth and willfully ignoring it because to act would be inconvenient. The third piece is performed by Heather Raffo as an Iraqi woman of considerable social and political stature who tells a harrowing story of torture leavened with a powerful combination of heroism and heartbreaking poignancy.

The political fallout from the play is as complicated as the war, itself. America, certainly, does not come off well in any of these monologues. But the play is also fair in acknowledging that Saddam Hussein was vicious and brutal and his end was absolutely necessary. So, to its credit, the play does not offer an easy solution. Nor a hard one. It does, however, offer a searing and artful look at the war's cost to our humanity.

Poised to go to Broadway, Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty is likely to be seen as a maturation of the playwright's vision. Less dark than his previous bitter and biting works, this one features a thoughtful and decent protagonist who, rather than becoming morally undermined, actually gets happier and evolves into a better human being by the end of the play. The play is also written on a more human scale, dispensing with LaBute's trademark surprise plot twists.

Having said all of that, we should add that while others may consider this a more mature play, we're of the opinion that there was nothing immature about LaBute's earlier works. Plays like Fat Pig were audacious, penetrating and deeply moving. This play is not a maturation so much as it is yet another insightful view of LaBute's favorite subject: the way men attempt to fathom their own inadequacies, especially in relation to that mysterious creature known as woman.

The only thing more impressive than LaBute's prolific output is the consistently high quality of his work. He may write more or less on the same themes, but his ability to tackle his subject matter in such a fresh manner each time out is astonishing. This play, under the skillful direction of Terry Kinney, comes to life in the vibrant performances of four riveting actors. Thomas Sadoski gives a richly shaded performance as our hero that ought to bring him a Tony nomination when he arrives on Broadway. Alison Pill is as ferocious as she is ultimately tender as Sadoski's sensitive girlfriend. Pablo Schreiber is wonderfully hateful as the quintessential LaBute male idiot, while Piper Perabo turns in an ultimately winning, understated performance as a woman who grows up in counterpoint to the change for the better in Sadoski's character.

The only thing different about reasons to be pretty from LaBute's other recent works is that this one ends more happily than the others. This already mature artist has given us a rare gift: a fresh perspective.

-- Barbara and Scott Siegel

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