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10 Things to Do Before I Die

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Natalie Venetia Belcon and Tracie Thoms.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

For a play that warns about the dangers of spinning your wheels and wasting your time, 10 Things to Do Before I Die takes nearly forever to live up to its title. It's not until well into the second act of Zakiyyah Alexander's labored, falsely poetic play, which Second Stage is presenting at the McGinn-Cazale Theatre as part of its Second Stage Theatre Uptown series, that you really get a concrete idea of what it's about. By that time, Alexander, director Jackson Gay, and a group of poorly matched actors have made it practically impossible to care.

This is a show that announces its misplaced pretensions in its opening seconds. Vida (Natalie Venetia Belcon) is a New York City public school theatre teacher, who's trying to convince her unruly students to analyze and appreciate Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. After the class, she's approached by a student, Jose (Kyle Beltran), who's inspired by her words and maybe even her personally. It helps that his poor, dysfunctional upbringing has granted him deep insights into the roughneck Stanley Kowalski, but he can't understand how Blanche could be made to vanish into her own propriety - something Vida comprehends all too well.

Like Blanche, she has her own sister issues. Nina (Tracie Thoms) achieved literary stardom from writing a tell-all book about her family history that might have stretched the facts a little. ("My work is based on truth," Nina insists. "My truth. The truth as I know it.") Vida objected to being portrayed as an indiscriminate man-chaser and both their lives' problems stemming from their alcoholic father's abuse, and the two have barely spoken since the book - with its outrageous, profanity-laced title - was published. Still, like Williams's dueling sisters, Vida and Nina are fighting against dissolving into the mists of mediocrity, with men - Vida's married no-strings boyfriend, Andrew (Dion Graham), and Nina's devoted coke-snorter-turned-businessman fiancé Jason (Francois Battiste) - who are struggling to keep their inner Stanleys and Mitches in check.

Tracie Thoms with Francois Battiste.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

If 10 Things to Do Before I Die is a bit more than a thinly veiled allusion to Streetcar, it ends its journey several stops short of compelling drama. Its connection to its title comes from a flimsy subplot in which Vida and Nina sort through their late father's possessions and come across the list he made of simple attainable aspirations: "Have a drink on every continent," "jump in the ocean," and "fly a plane," are typical entries. It inspires them to examine the choices they make and the experiences they forsake in pursuit of nebulous ambitions, but it works as a dramatic anchor precisely because Alexander lets it gently push events along rather than yank them by the nose.

The rest of the play is not so blessed. It obviously and obnoxiously presents all these people as different facets of the same rhinestone, all suffering from addictions (Nina to antidepressants, Vida to men, Jason to his job, and so on) and a grating tendency to speak as though they're living in an unpublished Williams hand-wringer. But Williams earned his dialogue's often uncomfortable musicality by fully integrating it into his settings, using it to highlight the tense relationship between classic Southern gentility and contemporary emotional trauma.

Alexander's bottomless, florid speeches and gaudy exchanges do not accomplish as much. Jason to Nina: "It's no joke that you do have this certain way of dealing with the truth." Nina to Jason: "Just cause I don't tread lightly -" Jason to Nina: "Says the Mac truck. It's the implications of your truth." Nina to Jason: "I implicated myself." Much of the play is rendered just this way, as if the words' pointedness, divorced from personality or context, really says anything. It doesn't. Nor do a handful of dream sequences that punctuate the action: Composed in the same nauseatingly overwritten way, only changes in Thomas Dunn's lights and characters' direct quotations from Streetcar make it possible to distinguish them from the "real" world of pain everyone is living in.

Gay's staging is usually simple and direct, easy to absorb but often at odds with the way the characters move and sound. That may explain why the performers are always both on edge and glued in place, as if they don't know how to approach any individual moment or the play as a whole. Thoms seems to be dancing through a Bohemian comedy, Belcon is planted at the center of a Greek tragedy, Graham is channeling August Wilson magical realism, and Beltran is aiming for an episode of the Wire. This blend of styles underscores the characters' differences, but prevents the play from ever cohering into a single world capable of holding everyone.

Only Battiste really captures the flawed and fractured romance of Williams that Alexander's trying to evoke, though Jason has the most tenuous connection to reality. (One scene, in which he treats accepting an executive promotion as akin to ascending to the Presidency, is particularly eye-rolling.) Then again, reality is not Alexander's goal. She wants to demonstrate the devastation that can result from the wrong kind of fantasies, and the redemption that can emerge from the right ones - ultimately, those on the lists that Nina and Vida's father unwittingly encouraged his children to make.

When 10 Things to Do Before I Die embraces and presents that as the key to overcoming a turbulent life, the cluttered pieces do all come together to form a recognizable picture of hope. That it doesn't happen until the final scene is hardly accidental, nor is the fact that that scene thrives more on feelings and the aftermath of choices than it does a parade of pretty but meaningless words. Alexander does apparently understand that sometimes the best way to say everything is to say nothing, and this play would be a stronger and sturdier if she proved much earlier than she does.

10 Things to Do Before I Die
Through June 14
McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at West 76th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Second Stage

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