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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 1, 2017

Harry Bainbridge and Tony Del Bono
Photo by Deangelo Miller

"Is death a bad thing?" asks one of the characters in Judson Blake's ambitious if rambling dystopian satire Perversion, now at the 13th Street Repertory Theater. Answer: It depends on who's dying.

To get a sense of the overall work, imagine a mashup of novelist George Orwell and the absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco, with a dash of Lewis Carroll thrown in for good measure. From Orwell, the playwright has borrowed ideas about totalitarianism and the brainwashing power of propaganda. Then he has shaped the play into a style resembling one of Ionesco's fanciful avant-garde works, replete with the master's penchant for peripheral philosophic meanderings. Occasionally, as well, he pays homage to Lewis Carroll's skill with logic and wordplay.

Perversion takes place in a home that has been invaded by a pair of government inspectors, Tweedledee and Tweedledum types whose purpose is both bureaucratically ridiculous (they claim to be there to inspect the meat) and puzzlingly threatening (one of the items in their tool kit is a shotgun). As played by Harry Bainbridge and Tony Del Bono, these two, known, respectively, as Quibble and Scar, best measure up to the Ionesco-like absurdism that is the show's biggest strength. They, along with a third character, a TV camera-toting reporter named Major Importance (Robert Lewis), embody the play's main theme, how those in power manipulate language and images to modify people's thinking and cover up their high crimes and misdemeanors. On the back of Major Importance's vest, for instance, are the words: "All the news we want you to know," implicating the media in this conspiracy of what has come to be referred to as "alternative facts."

There are many inspired moments and examples of smart writing within the play, especially when the dialog turns to elucidating the subterfuge that is used to garner the public's assent to questionable wars, including the killing of non-combatant civilians that we seem so ready to brush aside as "collateral damage." But these periods of focused lucidity tend to get watered down by a convoluted plot that wanders into more tangents than you'll encounter in an entire semester of a geometry course.

The other cast members, representing the family that has been intruded on, serve mainly as foils for Quibble and Scar and the reporter, and they have precious little to do to move the story forward. The dual meaning of the play's title (one with a sexual implication, the other with a political one) is dispensed with early on, and the rest of the characters generally fade into the background. One, a young and frequently out-of-control little boy (played by Irina Kaplan) may be thought of as a stand-in for a certain recently-elected head of state, especially when he is allowed to operate the controls to an actual weapon of mass destruction of which he has no understanding.

The playwright, Mr. Blake, who also directs the production, says that Perversion has been "extracted" from an as-yet unpublished novel. His decidedly stream-of-consciousness style may very well work for a piece of experimental fiction. But it does make for some rough going for an audience trying to absorb the free-flying loose elements of the play, which cries out for trimming and editing to make it more accessible.

Through April 30
13th Street Repertory Theater, 50 West 13th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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