The Blog

First Nighter: Llewellyn Casey's Misguided "O, Earth," Nandita Shenoy's Misled "Washer/Dryer"

Although you need to know that Casey Llewellyn's, directed by Dustin Wills at HERE in a Foundry Theatre production, is as thickheaded a comedy(?) as you'd ever want to avoid, you might still be interested to continue reading the following.
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Although you need to know that Casey Llewellyn's O, Earth, directed by Dustin Wills at HERE in a Foundry Theatre production, is as thickheaded a comedy(?) as you'd ever want to avoid, you might still be interested to continue reading the following. It may give you some idea of where, in a sadly dumbed-down culture, we're headed--or as the Jim Carrey-Jeff Daniels movie and its sequel have it, as does the Republican candidate line-up: Things are only getting dumb and dumber.

O, Earth is, you see, a contemporary take on Thornton Wilder's Our Town. That's as if a contemporary update on one of the three or four best American plays of the 20th century is called for. After all, were you to search around for a more universal play than the one in which Wilder's microcosmic Grover's Corner, New Hampshire becomes a macrocosm of the way people live everywhere, you'd be hard pressed to find one.

You wouldn't find one. After all, Our Town, which annually has often had 400 productions of various kinds, has been presented around the globe with no end of people of all nations playing the universally recognizable Grover's Corners citizens.

Yet, playwright Llewellyn doesn't understand as much. It seems to her as if since 1938, Our Town has become just the teensiest bit dated. Even more dire, it seems to Llewellyn that Our Town is just the weensiest bit racist, because Grover's Corners was unmistakably an all-white town.

Crazy, I know, but Llewellyn--who gives colleague playwright Wilder some credit for coming up back in the less enlightened day with a play that had meaning for (predominantly white?) audiences--has decided that if Wilder were writing his okay-then Our Town now, he'd acknowledge how wised-up we've gotten about women's rights, gay rights and this year's major playwriting trend, transgender rights.

Yes, we're all behind those rights now--although Wilder, a homosexual who kept his sexuality to himself, was writing in the context of his times, a realization too many of today's observers fail to concede. That's as if those observers aren't creating their works in a context that 78 years from now may not be conceded, either.

Oh, no, Llewellyn has decided that if Wilder's Emily Webb were living today, she'd get herself out of stultifying Grover's Corners as soon as the getting was good and become politically active. Llewellyn's Emily (Kristen Sieh, looking like Betsy Blair in Marty) would leave George Gibbs (Jess Barbagallo) behind, even though, if I have Llewellyn right, our George is transgender.

And here's what she'd do. She'd spend her afternoons watching Ellen DeGeneres (Five Lesbian Brothers member Moe Angelos) with gay couple Duncan (Tommy Heleringer and Spencer (Afo Blankson) guesting as well as Stonewall-days veterans/transgender Sylvia Rivera (Cecilia Gentill) and Marsha P. Johnson (Mizz June). Note that Emily watches them, couch-potato-like but doesn't necessarily join them. She does wangle her way into Ellen's home for some quality time with Portia DiRossi (Emily Davis).

So far I've not mentioned perhaps the too most prominent characters in Llewellyn's travesty. I have mentioned Thornton Wilder but not indicated that he appears here, as played by Martin Moran. Wilder does address the audience occasionally but spends as much or more time digging in an upstage pile of rubble that contains some sort of hole in which a whale has been spotted. (Does the pile symbolize how Wilder's magnificent play has been buried here? Just asking.)

The other figure is Llewellyn's version of Wilder's Stage Manager (Donnetta Lavinia Grays, who's African-American). As this Stage Manager wanders around the large stage drawing on her clay pipe, she's quite impressed with herself at having replaced Wilder's faded white oppressor. That's to say, the character is, not Grays.

Don't get me wrong. I understand that Llewellyn thinks to use the Wilder work as a metaphor for pointing out how society has evolved over eight decades, but she's chosen the wrong predecessor. Its very essence is its timelessness, the antithesis of Llewellyn's concern.

Never mind. The real Our Town endures, and perhaps there will be 400 productions of it elsewhere this year as in many previous years, and they'll be good, bad and indifferent. Considered in that perspective, Casey Llewellyn's attack--from which the actors and director Wills can be excused from any serious wrong-doing--is no more nor less than a foolish aberration to be quickly forgotten, as may never happen to the original.
Let's all hope that Ted Cruz doesn't get a gander at Nandita Shenoy's Washer/Dryer. Were he to take it in, he'd have plenty more to say about New York values and the simple-minded ways in which they manifest themselves. He'd particularly have a lot to tell constituents about New York values in regards to real estate.

In a more or less romantic comedy that has the feel of a poor woman's spin (no, not a washer/dryer spin) on Neil Simon's Take Her, She's Mine from 1964, Michael (Johnny Wu) and Sonya (the very playwright herself) have just assumed residence in her flat after a quickie marriage in Las Vegas.

The hitch in their sitch--although they've only been hitched a week--is that they're setting up light housekeeping in the single occupancy apartment she not only purchased on proceeds from her voiceover work but about which she's never informed new groom/freelance writer Michael that he's squatting on her turf illegally.

Uh-oh. Further uh-ohs include, firstly, the unexpected arrival at the Anshuman Bhatia-designed digs--boasting the precious washer-dryer behind louvered doors--of Dr. Lee (Jade Wu), Michael's psychiatrist mother and a lady so determinedly negative she could find fault in a perfect sunset.

The forbidding Dr. Lee is followed after not too much time has elapsed (and no laughs have accrued--at least for the discerning) by Wendy (Annie McNamara), the coop-board head and a second termagant, who sniffs a rat in the shape of house-rules-breaking Michael.

Upping the low-grade stakes is apartment-next-door-neighbor Sam (Jamyl Dobson), who's a gay black man possessed of all the wisdom of the ages and therefore yet another sitcom cliché we might have wished had been retired after Tony Kushner debuted Angels in America nearly 25 years ago.

Once these five numbingly unfunny figures are gathered together--although Shenoy gets them off and on in several groupings over 95 minutes--she goes for jokes about Michael's background as Chinese, Sonya's background as Indian and Wendy's meanness and resistance to acknowledge her (unseen, thank providence) son Cameron's homosexuality.

Those angles are only the beginning of the convolutions the playwright of this misguided Ma-Yi Theater Company production, at the Beckett, thinks might amuse ticket buyers. There's an entire segment during which Michael pretends to be gay so that the snooping Wendy won't conclude that he and Sonya are married.

Everything that goes wrong before Shenoy ties it up with a pretty ribbon occurs in real time, and since reading this account also occurs in real time, I won't take up any more of it, except to say it's directed (through clenched teeth?) by Benjamin Kamine, and that as they go at their roles, the actors don't embarrass themselves. Actor Shenoy does, however, in her other chosen assignment as author.