Off Broadway Reviews
Michael Roderick's new play, Props, which is premiering at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, could easily be subtitled Sunday in the Studio With Pygmalion. Touching on questions of artistic inspiration similar to those in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park With George, and concerning an artist whose cherished artistic creation comes to life to love him, Props is not bereft of meaning for those more concerned with matters of the heart or of the artistic soul.
Rather, the problem with Props, directed with theatrical if not memorable savvy by Moira K. Costigan, is that it tackles too much. This story about a theatrical props master named Andrew (Ben Sumrall) who becomes romantically fixated (to the exclusion of all else) on the puppet he's constructed for a show, veers so uncontrollably between earnest, sappy, heavy-handed, and violent that Roderick's real message - whether about the dangers of obsession, or the vagaries of love - is never concretely made.
As a result, the other women in Andrew's life - sexy Denise (Leigh Poulos), former friend and flame Melissa (Amy Lerner), and chaotically emotive muse Susan (Jennifer Boehm) - look and behave like backdrops, rather than unfinished statues Andrew must lovingly complete to fulfill his soul. Strained, platitudinous dialogue, sounding too adolescent for the emotionally immature Andrew, doesn't help. ("Love," he says at one point, "I thought that's what I had. It's what I felt." Later: "It's killing me being alone.) Nor does Sumrall's bombastic barking of all his lines, which renders Andrew a hard-headed victim with whom it's impossible, if not undesirable, to sympathize.
Lerner, Boehm, and Poulos are all capable, but the most recognizable glimmers of life come from Corey Ann Haydu as Andrew's beloved puppet, Kerri. Whether sitting motionlessly or interacting with her creator while awash in childlike wonderment, her attitude - equal parts erotic and innocent - make you wonder how she might have tackled the central role. Given Roderick's too-general writing, and an M. Night Shyamalan-style twist that closes the evening on a discordant note, that's an intriguing possibility. But as Props ultimately seems more constructed than heartfelt, you're usually left wondering why Roderick didn't himself take the advice Susan gives Andrew: "Stop thinking so much and just allow yourself to feel."
The Siblings, Rabbit Hole Ensemble's new adaptation of Hansel and Gretel, is grimmer than it is Grimm. Examining a desolate future in which there are but four remaining humans - a father (Arthur Aulisi), a mother (Kathryn Velvel Jones), and those two precocious youngsters (Paul Daily and Amanda Broomell) - Edward Elefterion's play is as bereft of hope as it is packed with theatrical invention. But no clever staging tricks can make all of these 65 bleak, preachy minutes legitimately entertaining.
Though the play tracks closely with the traditional Grimm tale - parents abandoning children in the forest, rocks and bread crumbs creating trails, a dastardly witch (Catherine Siracusa), and so on - Elefterion eventually diverges into a proselytizing piece about the evils of blind faith. This means the inclusion of an oracular figure (the mother) who twists her discussions with God to her own benefit, a lot of wailing about God's injustices, a lot of praying for ill-defined purposes, and a final tableau apparently intended to prove that God, indeed, has left the building, and that the human race is doomed as a result.
No, it's not exactly a cheery children's story. Still, Elefterion (who also directed) unquestionably got exactly what he wanted from both the script, props handler Emily Surabian (who, in creating the sound and "magic" effects so essential to this dystopian fairy tale, becomes another character), and the five hard-edged performers, whose ghostly, ghastly meanderings and mutterings are so tightly choreographed and conducted that you know you're watching a fully conceived and flawlessly executed piece of theatre.
But to what end? Elefterion's failure to clarify his points prevents this otherwise polished production from having much emotional or intellectual impact, and with heavy stylization in place that rather recalls John Doyle's current Broadway Sweeney Todd, most of what happens is too impenetrable to be successful. It's simply not clear whether Elefterion intended his play as an anti-religious tract or as an allegorical warning about the dangers of theocratic governance, and past a certain point, it's difficult to care. If The Siblings doesn't lead to head scratching, it will almost certainly lead to head drooping.