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Stop Hitting Yourself

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Cast
Photo by Erin Baiano.

Everyone's for sale, argues the new play Stop Hitting Yourself—life is merely a negotiation about the price. And from the moment you enter the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center, where this piece by Rude Mechs just opened in an LCT3 production, you'll be wondering what your own going rate should be. From elaborate columns to a giant lighted dollar sign to a dozen chandeliers to mirrored wall panels and even a gold-plated suit of armor, you can escape neither the lap of luxury nor the sinking feeling that you don't actually deserve it.

Is that enough to sustain an hour and a half of theater? Perhaps, but as written here by Kirk Lynn and directed by Shawn Sides, the answer is not so clear cut. Though there are isolated instances of insight to be found, and Mimi Lien's sparkling set, Emily Rebholz's swank upper-crust costumes, and Brian H. Scott's luxurious lights successfully underscore the trappings and traps of success, the filigree ultimately just masks the more profound thematic emptiness at the heart of this work.

Thomas Graves and Lana Lesley
Photo by Erin Baiano.

The presentation is, admittedly, novel. Setting the action within a queen's gilded palace and examining what happens during the two-week run-up to a charity ball that will grant one lucky, ordinary person (chosen from those who have high-profile sponsors) a favor from the monarch sets up a fascinating disquisition on class and classlessness. And when the two contenders are a tangle-haired forest dweller known only as Wildman (Thomas Graves) and an on-the-outs gentlemen who claims to be a prince from a long-ago-absorbed kingdom (Joey Hood), there are additional, potentially compelling, avenues to explore as far as who deserves what.

Once the opulence begins to transform Wildman, however, clothing his (literal) nakedness, convincing him that drinking out of a crystal goblet is superior to sipping from a plain cup, and pouring him into the bed of a glittering socialite (Lana Lesley) concealing plenty of ulterior motives of her own, any claims to originality are abandoned. Is there any question whether he'll forget his older, worse self and the pro-environmentalism cause that propelled him to compete in the first place, or whether the ruling body will even let his complaint be heard should he be found qualified to make it? Of course not.

Rude Mechs prides itself on its experimental bent, and certainly vestiges of a unique production process are on display throughout. The tap-danced interludes that symbolize the unbridled yet mechanical joy that is all these people know. Scenes, spoken directly to us, in which the actors appear to reflect on their own dysfunctional real-world relationships with money and the fruits it enables. And a powerful fixation on queso, which shows up on chips, in a fountain, and slathered over most performers' bodies before the evening is through. One doesn't see how all this couldn't add up to something.

But it doesn't. The final product is a rigidly conventional and uncomfortably familiar one that stops short of seriously challenging any taboos. Despite being inspired in part by the writings of Ayn Rand (per a program note), it doesn't really address questions of self-reliance or even the capitalist ideal; its underlying messages seems to be no more complex than "money corrupts, and absolute money corrupts absolutely"—Bertolt Brecht without the pretense of nuance. (The metal magnate played to smarmy perfection by E. Jason Liebrecht is unsurprisingly named "Steele," for example.) A stage version of Rand's individualist ode Anthem, imported to New York by Austin Shakespeare earlier this season (Rude Mechs is based in the same Texas city), proved more subversive because it didn't shy away from Rand's core issues.

Stop Hitting Yourself is at least entertaining, though, and that counts for a lot here; its pungent sense of humor and impeccable style making its scratched-record themes into easy-listening tunes. The elevated acting style does not clash with the appropriately overstuffed scenery, and lets takes as diverse as Graves's anesthetized Wildman, Paul Soileau's dotty but manipulating queen, and Heather Hanna's naturalistically put-upon maid easily coexist.

Hanna and Soileau, in fact, are at the center of the show's most interesting narrative segment: when the queen convinces her servant to pay her for the "privilege" of chugging the unknown liquid within. The queen's tactics are deplorable, sure, but the maid's willingness to play a game she's well aware could lead to her destruction proves all too effortlessly why the system to which they both adhere is destined to perpetuate itself.

More engaging still is a mid-play diversion (recreated, largely wholesale, from a Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind bit by Greg Allen), in which the filthy-rich magnate identifies just how far real people—meaning the audience—will go for a dollar. As he brings onlookers onstage he requires increasingly demanding acts in exchange for the $1 bill: Saying your name quickly becomes barking like a dog, showing your belly button, kissing him on the lips, and even, in the final exchange, disrobing entirely.

There were laughs a-plenty emanating from others in the audience, but I found it a chilling and profoundly disturbing statement about how we draw the line between what we value and what we don't. One suspects that Stop Hitting Yourself was aiming for exactly this sort of introspection throughout, and on that score it falls short. But that it managed to bring its routine finger-waggings about wealth and those who possess it out of the theoretical world and into the actual one, if only for a couple of minutes, is an accomplishment that—unlike the rest of the show—cannot be easily dismissed.

Stop Hitting Yourself
Through February 23
Claire Tow Theater (Lincoln Center Theater's newest stage), 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets and performance schedule at Telecharge

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