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Night Sings Its Songs

I cannot stand it
No. I can't handle it.
We can not live like this.

--- Young Woman
Louis Cancelmi and Anna Guttormsgaard
Louis Cancelmi and Anna Guttormsgaard (Photo: Jim Baldassare)
He can't handle going out, she can't handle being confined in the apartment she shares with him and their newborn baby. He, known only as Young Man, and she, known only as Young Woman, are Norwegian urbanites trapped in a marital nightmare of neediness and non-communication.

Young Man is a would- be writer (though we never find out what sort of writing he does) and what he seems incapable of handling are the rejections from publishers to whom he sends his work whenever he can muster the courage or energy to affix a stamp to a manuscript envelope. He also has difficulty handling the demands of fatherhood. His frustrations have turned him into an agoraphobic couch potato spending most of his time reading a book. (He is stretched out on that couch even before the lights dim).

Young Woman is more animated and gainfully employed at an unspecified job from which she is currently on maternity leave. Without the camaraderie of the work place, she finds it increasingly difficult to handle the lack of meaningful interaction with the depressed Young Man with whom she first became involved when they were both high school students.

He can't handle his wife's going out on the town (they may actually just be living together and not married), purportedly with a woman friend but in fact with a young man who does have a name (Baste). She can't handle his suspicious questioning about her night out and his veiled hints of what a breakup might bring about. She segues between nagging and taunting him about his moping about reading and writing unpublishable material and pleas for affection and connection ("Can't we go to bed/ We can hold each other/Comfort each other").

If I seem to be repeating myself with one "he can't handle" and "she can't handle" after another, just wait until you go to see Night Sings Its Songs. The play marks the American debut of Jon Fosse who has been widely touted by the advance press as Norway's heir to Ibsen, Beckett and Pinter.

The "I can't handle this" recitative is the main but not only such leitmotif running through Fosse's blank verse script. These repetitions are obviously a favorite authorial device; but don't expect quotable Shakespearean lines. This is the poetry of the mundane, its words strung together in soporific rhythms in keeping with this stark picture of lives of quiet desperation. The very namelessness of the protagonists makes them depressing stand-ins for an all too common modern Everyman and woman. Of course, given the literary bloodlines with which he's been anointed, Fosse punctuates his dialogue with plenty of Pinteresque and Beckettian pauses and ends things on a note of Ibsen-like melodrama.

The trouble with being hailed as another Ibsen or Beckett or Pinter is that your voice begins to sound a bit too much like the forbears everyone has come to know so well -- especially, if the familial dysfunctions explored are also familiar. Were it the first dark portrait of relationships shattered with cryptic small talk and subtext filled pauses, Night Sings Its Songs would indeed provide a theatrical evening with an incisive new voice. As it is, a strong whiff of derivativeness overhangs the drama; this despite a solid production by translator and director Sarah Cameron Sunde and the performances of Anna Guttormsgaard and Louis Cancelmi being clearly attuned to Mr. Fosse's reliance on facial expressions and silences to give meaning to the banality of the young couple's life and words.

The plot -- and the verse poetry style notwithstanding, there is a dramatic arc -- has us follow Young Man and Young Woman through a period from afternoon to early morning as their relationship moves towards its final breaking point. There are three other characters. The first two are the Young Man's parents (Peter Davies and Diane Ciesla). Their shockingly overdue and abbreviated visit to their grandchild clarifies the inherited pattern of withheld closeness between husband and wife and parents and children. It also adds an absurdist twist that makes for the play's best and most original scene. There's also the Young Woman's friend Baste (George Hannah who seems lost and miscast in this part).

The action is confined to the apartment. While Young Woman leaves several times, and the parents and Baste come and go, the viewer tends, after a while, to feel as locked into that austere living room as the Young Man.

There is yet another character, the baby whose frequent despairing wails echo the mood of the adults. When the baby carriage is wheeled into the living room you might be reminded of yet another playwright, Edward Bond, in whose seminal Saved ( review of Off-Broadway revival), a baby in a carriage plays a horrific part. Though there's no gasp-inducing abuse of the baby in Night Sings Its Songs, having watched the awkwardness of the parents interaction with their son and grandchild, there is nevertheless a sense of menace on stage every time we see that wailing baby being rocked in its carriage but never picked up and talked to lovingly. The menace is of course the looming tragedy of disturbing family patterns repeating themselves.

Unfortunately, despite the competence of the acting and set designer Lauren Helpern's apt reconfiguration of the usually cavernous basement theater into a modern living room that is simple and open but also claustrophobic and full of puzzling angles, the dominance of style over emotional substance makes it hard to care deeply about these characters. Still, even though watching these people's inarticulate struggle with their tamped down emotions at times seems endless, Mr.Fosse is indeed an able chronicler of the banality of their ordinariness.

By Jon Fosse
Directed and translated by Sarah Cameron Sunde
Starring Louis Cancelmi and Anna Guttormsgaard, with Diane Ciesla, Peter Davies, Anna Guttormsgaard, George Hannah
Set Design: Lauren Helpern
Costume Design: Maline Casta
Lighting Design: Roma Flowers
Sound Design: Ryan Tilke
Composer: Christopher Tin
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission
>Unbound Theatre, Spring Theatre Works & Oslo Elsewhere at The Culture Project, 45 Bleecker: 45 Below (at Lafayette) 212. 352-0255
From 6/05/04 to 6/26/04; opening 6/07/04
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on June 5th press performance
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