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A CurtainUp Review

The Propaganda Plays
By Les Gutman

S. Graubert and D. Hornsby
(Photo: Carolyn Sicher)
When I was a sophomore in college, I took a political philosophy class for which the principal assignment was a paper entitled "My Own Political Philosophy". I was offended by the notion that one could be required to adopt a formalized philosophy, so I wrote a paper saying so. I was even more offended when the professor gave me an "A-" and suggested that what I'd advocated was essentially the same as Dewey's Pragmatism.

I can assure you I haven't thought about that experience since. But The Propaganda Plays conjures up plenty of old memories. Micah Schraft, its young (but not sophomoric) playwright, seems to be grappling with some of the same forces I was contending with: Is there really a point in getting so exercised about absolute notions of right and wrong? When push comes to shove, are we going to give effect to Plato? Socrates? The Bible? Or do opportunities overrule ideas every time?

Schraft doesn't let us escape the questions with facile resolutions. Each "chapter" of his play demands that we confront fundamental truths and abject lies, as well as the thread that ties them together. In each case, it's in an inappropriate sexual context. 

In "The Allegory of the Cave," Sheila (Sheri Graubert) is an exchange student from the U.K.;  Mr. Cogdon (Adrian LaTourelle) is her teacher.Another student, named Atom, is heard from off-stage. In "Atom and Devorah," a few years later, we finally meet Atom (David Hornsby), now a glib if somewhat awkward college student, and his father's new snake-bearing, apple-chomping wife, Devorah (Tatyana Yassukovich). Finally, in "Natural Selection," another decade has passed and Atom (now Mr. LaTourelle) is a professor. Sheila (now Ms. Yassukovich) is a journalist interviewing him about his new book. Ms. Graubert is in the office too --her character's name is Alice -- applying for a job as his intern (her father's idea: she wants to be an actress); Mr. Hornsby is already Atom's seemingly deaf-and-dumb boytoy. 

Schraft fears little, and takes on hardcore topics that playwrights ought to relish but seldom do. For this alone, he should be paraded down Second Avenue. He's also especially clever, building symbols that pay off later on -- often to comic effect -- and imbuing his characters with a slightly understated, almost surreal irony that becomes one of the play's significant undertones. There are lessons still to be learned: his characters tend too often to get bogged down in their rhetoric, and sometimes the play dwells too long where it needn't go -- getting this play on its feet, the playwright can likely see these faults as easily as I can -- but there is far more here to admire than complain about.

Each of Schraft's plays has been directed by Trip Cullman, and his staging suggests not only a fine sense of how to tell the playwright's story, but the sort of heightened collaboration that good playwright/director pairings engender. For a fairly simple production and a short run, his results are astounding; the quality and intensity of the performances he elicits is terrific. 

I've spent so much time writing about the play and playwright, I am guilty of giving the actors short shrift. They don't deserve it. I've seen and enjoyed Sheri Graubert before. Her twin roles here give us a chance to see her dexterity and intuition put to great use. David Hornsby, an actor we've seen in the Berkshires before, gets a chance to shine in the middle section of this show. His eccentric but layered Atom is wonderful -- a window into the work we can hopefully expect to see from him often. Ms. Yassukovich and Mr. LaTourelle are both new to us, but likewise show tremendous promise. There are no false notes in either of their performances.

This is a very short run, but may provide a much-needed shot of optimism for theater-goers worried about the future at the beginning of this theater season. The show is a product of Dixon Place's Mondo Cane! Commissioning series, and represents also a segue into more "traditional" shows for them. Let's hope we can see more of the same, while wishing The Propaganda Plays a future as well.

by Micah Schraft 
Directed by Trip Cullman

with Sheri Graubert, David Hornsby, Adrian LaTourelle and Tatyana Yassukovich 
Set Design: Sandra Goldmark
Lighting Design: Matthew Richards 
Costume Design: Junghyun Georgia Lee
Sound Design: Fitz Patton
Running time: 2 hours with one intermission 
Dixon Place at Vineyard 26,  309 East 26th Street (1/2 Avs.) (212) 532-1546
Opens 9/9/2000 closes 9/23/2000
Reviewed by Les Gutman 9/10 based on 9/8 performance

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