The fantastic and the real: new plays at NYTW and Roundabout

Elevator Repair Service performers in Sibyl Kempson’s new play (photo by Joan Marcus)

Elevator Repair Service performers in Sibyl Kempson’s new play (photo by Joan Marcus)

Fondly, Collette Richland: Like Lewis Carroll and other fantasists, Sibyl Kempson, in this phantasmagoric new play created for Elevator Repair Service, takes a few characters through an almost unnoticed portal and into another realm. What they find isn’t a genial land of drollery (Carroll’s wonderland isn’t always purely genial either) but instead a cavalcade of grotesquerie sprinkled with tomfoolery. Scholar Victoria Nelson has been arguing in books (such as this one) that the cold light of rational materialism hasn’t abolished the supernatural—it has simply moved underground, out of official religion and into art and entertainment. Kempson, who delved into Gaston Bachelard and Mircea Eliade for this play (according to a recent Times article), may have been reading Nelson as well; the “resurgence” that’s referred to in her text parallels the one that Nelson describes. Regardless, Kempson’s work plays with similar material.

Fondly, Collette Richland gleefully speaks of or parades before us miscellaneous signs of the unseen, the transcendental, the otherworldly, and the simply strange: a shrunken doorway, a demon on a mountaintop, a grotto, a monstrous hybrid (a “pig-dog”), voices in the air (personified by a radio-show host), masqueraders, a can opener (which grants entrée to the inaccessible), an ambiguous power lurking in us all (“If you bring forth what is within you…,” courtesy of the Gospel of Thomas), et cetera, et cetera. The play just as gleefully speaks of itself, asking at one point (if memory serves) whether we all get it so far, to which one cast member planted in the audience replies, “I don’t,” before leaving in a huff.

There are no sea monsters, my personal-favorite unseen fearful thing, but at two hours and 40 minutes in length the show is pretty well-stocked already. Perhaps the application of a rational-materialist red pencil would’ve improved it; perhaps odd efflorescences such as this one collapse when pressed and must be allowed to unfold on terms of their own.

The New York Theater Workshop production, directed by John Collins, is beautifully orchestrated. If it’s all a little too much, well, that may be part of the intended effect. (At NYTW through October 18. Information here.)

Jess (Mamie Gummer) explores her VR world in Ugly Lies the Bone (photo by Joan Marcus)

Jess (Mamie Gummer) explores her VR world in Ugly Lies the Bone (photo by Joan Marcus)

Ugly Lies the Bone: Jess has come home from the war badly burned and is trying a virtual-reality treatment to shift her attention away from pain. It helps, but she’s getting little guidance on how to manage when she’s not at the clinic. Bridling at her condition (her hair mostly gone, one of her arms disfigured), Jess seems to do the wrong thing toward everybody around her: she snaps at her sister, doesn’t want to see her mother at all, ridicules her sister’s boyfriend though he has a disability himself, and leans toward a former love though he’s now married. Though it may be underwritten, there’s a spirit of generosity in Lindsey Ferrentino’s new play. In an early preview the show seemed underdirected as well, but Mamie Gummer, who in the role of Jess is onstage for almost all of it, holds our attention and eventually wins our sympathy simply through her dogged presence. (At the Roundabout Black Box Theatre through November 22. Information here.)

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