Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2009
If I were the Artistic Director of the WTF, and I knew that finances were tight this season and I would have to cut down sharply on the number of shows I could present, I would choose those shows very carefully. Ticket sales are not what supports any theatre company, but the sight and sound of houses filled with happy theatre-goers is a big morale boost to all concerned. For a season like this I would put the audience first and save the plays that I loved and believed in but were not quite ready for prime time for another year.
Knickerbocker, the first show up on the Nikos Stage, apparently falls in to the latter category for WTF Artistic Director Nicholas Martin, and it is the only show this season that he is personally directing. Martin was quoted in the North Adams Transcript as saying: "The playwright has been a great friend and colleague since I taught him at Bennington College. I’ve directed two of his other plays in New York City.” So Martin apparently not only believes in Knickerbocker as a play, but in Jonathan Marc Sherman, as a playwright.
That is all well and good, but there is such a thing as being too close to the forest to see the trees.
Knickerbocker is not a good play, in fact it is barely a play at all. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, drama requires some growth and change in the protagonist. In Knickerbocker our protagonist Jerry (Reg Rogers) only once steps outside of his booth at the Knickerbocker restaurant in New York City, and that is to tell us some unrelated tale of a man, struck by lightning seven times, who commits suicide at the age of 70 over an unrequited love. This is supposed to be a play about a man coming to grips with the impending birth of his first child. Parenthood is nothing like being struck by lightning, and, while love and heartbreak are certainly involved, unrequited love never enters the picture.
The psychological experience of dealing with the fact you are going to be a parent isn’t all that different for men and women. You find out that, in nine months or less, some person who hasn’t even had the decency to introduce themselves is about change your life forever and there is nothing you can do about it. The woman gets the thrill of having to share her body with this alien invader, but otherwise the waiting, the anxiety, the fear, the jealousy, are exactly the same for both genders.
It really is a waiting game, and you cannot spend the entire gestation period angsting over what may, or may not, be. But our boy Jerry seems to spend it sitting in a bar/restaurant talking about everything and anything, but rarely about becoming a father. We see him in three conversations with his wife, Pauline (Susan Pourfar), and one each with a former girlfriend Tara (Annie Parisse), his life-long chum Chester (Peter Dinklage), some other male friend Melvin (Brooks Ashmanskas), and his father Raymond (Bob Dishy.)
Frankly, I never caught Tara, Melvin or Jerry’s father’s names during the play itself. I had to look them up in the program. Nor did I ever figure out Melvin’s relationship to Jerry. Its kind of Playwriting 101 that, if you feel your characters have names, you ought to use them a few times in the dialogue so the audience catches on. Unless, of course, you don’t give a hoot about all those people who have paid good money to see your play.
Now I believe that the average expectant father doesn’t spend much time talking about their fears and feelings. Men in general don’t do that under any circumstances. Without the physical discomforts women have as constant reminders, expectant fathers are probably able to forget for long stretches that anything is changing in their lives and focus on work or sports or finances or other normal aspects of day-to-day life.
That is reality and its not very exciting. There certainly isn’t a play in it, or, if there is Sherman hasn’t written it.
What ended up interesting me were the actors who brought the most life and energy to Sherman’s poorly drawn characters. Parisse, Dinklage, and Dishy each created people I found interesting and who I cared about. Parisse’s Tara is an intelligent, warm woman with a good sense of humor. Dinklage’s hopelessly stoned and needy Chester is thoroughly annoying and endearing in equal doses. Dishy’s scene, beautifully acted, is the only one in the whole damned play that tells us anything about what makes Jerry tick and sheds light on what fatherhood is really all about, but it comes too late in the show to matter. You have already figured out that there isn’t going to be an intermission and therefore the show had better end soon before your butt falls asleep when you realize with horror that the playwright has suddenly decided to get to the point! Oy!
Sherman fills the evening with an awful lot of distasteful and pointless sex chatter and treats Pourfar’s character as a mere vessel for Jerry’s child. Apparently Jerry and Pauline had some difficulty getting pregnant, which leads to a painful monologue on sperm samples, but this revelation also begs the question, if this couple has been actively trying to get pregnant for some time, they must have made the mutual decision that they wanted to be parents at least a year ago. This is not an unexpected pregnancy and the reality of becoming a father shouldn’t be such a new thought to Jerry, unless he really is the shallow, sexist jerk Sherman has written him to be, in which case Pauline and their unborn son have my deepest sympathy.
Alexander Dodge has designed an overly complicated and flashy set that is both visually too much and structurally too little. This is a very New York play, which is just what audiences leave the city and travel to the Berkshires to see – NOT! Alex Neumann’s sound design is WAY too loud. Apparently some of that noise blasting from the amplifiers was original music by Michael Friedman, but I couldn’t tell, I just wanted it to stop. Gabriel Berry’s costumes do nothing but prevent the actors from being naked.
If I were the Artistic Director of the WTF, and I knew that finances were tight this season and I would have to cut down sharply on the number of shows I could present, I would not schedule a play just because the playwright was an old friend. I wouldn’t waste the company’s precious resources in that way – it is disrespectful to the cast, crew, and design team, and mostly to the paying customers who buy tickets assuming that you have some interest in entertaining or enlightening them, not just in letting your friends experiment with one of only seven coveted slots in the brief season of an award-winning theatre.
Knickerbocker runs through July 19 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs an hour and twenty minutes with no intermission and contains way too much sex talk to be suitable for children. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009