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Shows Worth Seeing:



Ritter, Dene, Voss
By Thomas Bernhard
La Mama Experimental Theatre Club
74A E. 4th St.
Box office: 212-475-7710

It ought to be embarrassing that Ritter, Dene, Voss, written in 1984 and frequently revived on German-language stages ever since, is only now receiving its American premiere. Alas, such neglect can’t embarrass us forgetful Americans, as just about everything foreign, or slightly “difficult,” or older than Justin Bieber, is neglected on our stages. At any rate, the play is here now, thanks to a scrappy Canadian company called One Little Goat, and anyone who has never experienced the curious magnetism of the Austrian provocateur Thomas Bernhard ought to check out one of its remaining performances.

Bernhard, who died in 1989, was a strange bird: a perpetual whiner who loved to pour satirical salt into old social wounds but who nevertheless found numerous ways to make his whining theatrically compelling. His most effective strategy was self-conscious theatricality, used to particularly fine advantage in Ritter, Dene, Voss. On the surface, this work is a thinly fictionalized story about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (here called Worringer) and his two incestuously attentive sisters, set on a day when Ludwig returns home from confinement in a mental institution. Innocuous complaints about household practicalities devolve into steamy confessions, discussions about medical treatment explode into social and political invective, and spur-of-the-moment philosophical apercus veer off into personal insult. The characters’ naturalistic surface is barely skin deep, for they are always aware that they are players—watching their own moves, feints and strategies, as if trying to outfox themselves as well as each other. There’s something Strindbergian about these people. They swell in stature as they talk, ultimately standing as bold ciphers or grandiose philosophical positions as much as specific people.

Adam Seelig’s production captures Bernhard’s layered and deliberately off-balance histrionic quality extremely well. The sisters, played by Shannon Perreault and Maev Beaty, provide a solid quasi-naturalistic basis for the action but don’t get so attached to it that they can’t shift instantly into more rhetorical or fantastical attitudes when the text demands it. Jordan Pettle is even better as the mercurial brother. Spoiled, willful, entitled, appallingly unstable but mercilessly calculating, he plays the two women off one another so expertly that his mere presence injects a wonderfully tense note of unpredictability into the action. The production isn’t perfect. Many physical antics surrounding Ludwig’s tantrums have unfortunately been cut, and not all the dialogue's jarring shifts of tone have been solved. What’s here is truly impressive, however, especially given the foreignness of the material. A better Bernhard won’t come along soon in NYC.


The Pitmen Painters
MTC's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th St.
Box office: 212-239-6200

Anyone who saw the musical Billy Elliot, for which Lee Hall wrote the book, will recognize the milieu of The Pitmen Painters right away. British coal miners overcome daunting educational and experiential obstacles to become artists. Hall evidently felt that Billy Elliot left certain aspects of this collision-of-worlds-scenario unexplored. The musical dealt with the heroic escape of a talented young boy from a culturally deprived world in the 1980s. The Pitmen Painters tells a story about that world (half a century earlier) itself becoming a bit less culturally deprived when a group of miners in the 1930s, prompted by an art history teacher trying to deepen their connection to the subject, persuades them to try painting. They discover a talent and inspiration for it, and shortly become national sensations. Based on a true story, this drama probes questions of class identity, class condescension, fear of social mobility, and selling out that did not fit the aims of a feel-good musical, and while no one who had thought much about these matters would say the probing goes very deep, Hall has handled it honestly and cogently. He also keeps things interesting, swift and fun, and the cast of this British import performs with infectious energy and conviction. Beyond that, the play has unquestionable documentary value. It’s a delight to learn about these remarkable men and see so many examples of their work projected upstage. Don't miss the beautifully illustrated book about them by William Feaver, from which Hall worked, on sale in the lounge.


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