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A CurtainUp Review

Motel Blues
By Jerry Weinstein

In theatrical circles, Joseph Chaikin was not only a seminal playwright and a teacher, but a legend. His Open Theater ushered in a new wave of avant-garde theater in the early sixties, while his collaborations with such leading lights as Samuel Beckett and Sam Shepard (with whom he co-wrote four plays), influenced generations of playwrights. Six months after he died in December of 2003, former students Clark Middleton and Darrell Larson came together to form Apartment 929, both as a tribute to Chaikin and to continue his work.

For their first opus the co-artistic directors decided on Motel Blues, commissioning eight playwrights (including Sam Shepard, Adam Rapp, and Lee Blessing) to each write one-acts set in a motel room. Each of the plays strongly reflects Chaikin's emphasis on language and, as he himself noted, its "relationship between speech, speaker, and listener." By providing the constraints of physical setting and play length (all are between fifteen and twenty minutes), Motel Blues resembles a theatrical riff on Dogma filmmaking.

Motels are almost mythic in the images they evoke: illicit love affairs, desperation, marginalization. In this milieu fame and wealth are absent (except for perhaps, a fall from headier times) and bitterness or emptiness is the order of the day. Still: there is that chance that truth can rear its head, for there's nothing left to be lost. In one way or another, all of the evening's themes reflect these closely held beliefs about motels. A few upend them gently, while others decimate them entirely.

Who better than to open the evening than Stephen Belber, whose play Tape was also fixed in a dour motel room? His play Management is an exercise in economy and stealth. This poignant and often ribald piece is fueled by a willfully vulnerable performance by Katie Firth.

You Too by Jan Jalenak is coy. What seems like a same-sex one-night-stand becomes more complex. The less experienced of the two grows disheartened when she learned that her partner is, like she, married with children: "I wanted a real lesbian. (pause) So did I." In taking the risk to bare their hearts, in addition to their bodies, their chance meeting changes their lives forever.

Man Baby by Mike Batistick is a less successful outing. It pairs two marginal hipsters who are just barely keeping their heads above water. While the actors themselves acquit themselves, this exercise in scatology leaves no impression of its own.

Adam Rapp's Bingo with the Indians is perhaps the evening's most trenchant piece. Stephen Caffrey acts the role of a playwright/possible sexual predator with unbridled relish. While he and the object of his affection are stoned out of their minds, Bingo interrogates the high-falutin' concept of performativity and makes a dichotomy of desire.

The dour Dear Dr. Phil is written and performed by Apartment 929's co-founder Clark Middleton. In Middleton's mission statement he reveals that Chaikin taught him to stop hiding his rheumatoid arthritis. In Dr. Phil Middleton incorporates his illness into his character -- a down-on-his-luck OxyContin addict (recently popularized by Rush Limbaugh) who has just robbed a bank out of desperation. The monologue is gruesome but authentic asking, "What does man create out of his hands?"

Thermopolis by Lee Blessing pits a stepfather against the daughter he's kidnapped away from her family. Although the background to their situation is unrevealed and the ending ambiguous, Thermopolis allows both Danton Stone and Jess Wexler to confound one another and the audience as well.

Linda Reynolds' Slamming Doors is a showcase for actress Catherine Curtin. While the text doesn't give her more than motivation -- there's little plot to speak of -- she runs with it, exploding in empathy, in anger, and finally, in stirring pathos.

The final work of the evening is by its most well known contributor, Sam Shepard. Pure Accident pays homage to Chaikin, envisioned and staged in an experimental manner not seen in Shepard since his early works. Unfortunately, the piece simply does not cohere. The play is aptly titled -- feeling little more than random brush strokes on a canvas that has yet to dry.

Overall, the evening is a success, a triumph of theatrical vision. Middleton and Larson have managed to execute their concept and reinscribe Chaikin's thesis, "Working together we teach ourselves." We can look forward to Apt. 929's upcoming enquiries which promise to also offer riveting entertainment.

Apartment 929
Written by Stephen Belber
Directed by Lucie Tiberghien
Cast: Katie Firth and Chris Messina

You Too?
Written by Jan Jalenak
Directed by Darrell Larson
Cast: Dena Tyler and Judith Hawking

Written by Mike Batistick
Directed by Randal Myler
Cast: Chris McKinney and Matthew Stadelmann

Bingo with the Indians
Written by Adam Rapp
Directed by Darrell Larson
Cast: Stephen Caffrey and Scott Barrow

Dear Dr. Phil
Written by Clark Middleton
Directed by Lucie Tiberghien
Cast: Clark Middleton

Written by Lee Blessing
Directed by Lucie Tiberghien
Cast: Danton Stone and Jessie Weixler

Slamming Doors
Written by Linda Reynolds
Directed by Randal Myler
Cast: Catherine Curtin and Jason Henning

Pure Accident
Written by Sam Shepard
Directed by Darrell Larson
Cast: Wayne Maugins, Shami Chaikin, Emily McDonnell, Eliza Simpson, Ann Hillary

Musical accompaniment: Jon Catler and Meredith Borden
Lighting Design: Mark Bloom
Costume Design: David Caudle
Sound Design: Joel Wilhelmi
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes including one intermission.
Apartment 929 at Greenwich Street Theater 547 Greenwich Street (between Charlton and Vandam)
Reservations: 212-946-1042
Beginning March 29, 2004 through April 11, 2004
Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 4pm
Tickets: $15.00, $10.00 for students

Reviewed by Jerry Weinstein
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