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Will Badgett, Jason Lew and Louis Cancelmi in John Jesurun's "Philoktetes," Soho Rep, 2007. Photo: Paula Court.

By John Jesurun
Soho Rep
46 Walker St.
Box office: (212) 868-4444


John Jesurun’s Philoktetes is a returning ghost of a play about a returning ghost. Originally written in 1993 for the actor Ron Vawter, who starred in it as he was dying of AIDS, it has been subsequently directed by the author several times in several different ways, including a 2005 Japanese production starring a famous Noh theater actor. This Soho Rep production is its U.S. premiere. The work clearly haunts Jesurun, which is no surprise since one of its chief novelties is that this version of the famous Greek title character may already be dead when the action opens. He’s a self-described “talking corpse” who provokes and toys with others using a remarkable logorrhea blended from glib colloquialisms, brute profanity, and lapidary philosophical statement. Philoktetes was a Greek general whom the Greeks abandoned on a desolate island after he suffered a wound that smelled bad and refused to heal. Later, when a prophecy states that the Greeks can’t win the Trojan war without Philoktetes’ magical bow (which once belonged to Herakles), Odysseus and Neoptolemus (the dead Achilles’ son) are sent to get the bow by hook or crook. Jesurun is fascinated by the “crookery” involved in this circumstance, yet rather than dramatize it, as Sophocles and others did, he concentrates on what might be described as frozen moments when the bad faith of the visitors is obvious to all and Philoktetes can let loose with an arsenal of emotionally analytical, accusatory language. There’s no moral comeuppance here but rather an awful, serio-comic, cyclical misery that all the characters—being principal agents of a predestined war—have no choice but to endure into eternity. Jesurun has directed the work this time with actors in plain modern street clothes sandwiched between two video-projection surfaces: one occupying nearly the entire stage floor, the other hanging diagonally overhead. Other than a few chairs, the video images are the only set—splashing water, hurricane winds, falling bombs, smoke, gently blowing trees, live video of the actors—and they create a rich countertext concerning a world of earthly phenomena that continues on its merry, violent way while the characters’ purgatorial recriminations drone forever on. The three actors—Louis Cancelmi, Will Badgett, and Jason Lew—are all strong in the gravely serious registers Jesurun apparently held them in, but the production could’ve used a little clownish lightness too. In any case, the overall experience is bracing, and the chance to see this remarkable work is rare and shouldn’t be missed.



Bobby Cannavale, Alison Pill and Dylan Baker in Theresa Rebeck's "Mauritius," Biltmore Theater, 2007. Photo: Joan Marcus

By Theresa Rebeck
Biltmore Theater
261 W. 47th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200


The first wave of reviews of Mauritius—Theresa Rebeck’s first play on Broadway—have hammered it for its likeness to David Mamet’s American Buffalo. There are indeed blatant similarities, including the use of choppy, Mametesque language, and Rebeck would have been wise to offer some pre-opening remarks explaining her feelings (homage? antipathy? competitiveness?). Nevertheless, I strongly urge readers to see the play and judge it for themselves. In American Buffalo, a scheme to steal a possibly valuable coin dramatizes the way commerce confuses and poisons friendship and loyalty among a trio of thuggish dimwits. In Mauritius, a messy struggle between two intelligent half-sisters over what to do with a possibly valuable, inherited stamp collection sets in motion a nuanced story about the effects of greed, abandonment, betrayal and opportunism on people with fatefully different self-images. I happen to be a Mamet fan, but I’ve always hated American Buffalo, which presents an unremittingly loathsome picture of thoroughly loathsome people. It’s emotionally monotonous, with a tedious and frustrating plot built entirely around entrapment, extortion and posturing among supposed friends. Rebeck, for her part, never dwells on the loathsome for its own sake. Her tale of scheming and petty crime indulges in muck but also illuminates because her characters are articulate enough to probe questions of authenticity that Mamet merely skimmed. The struggle over the stamps is in part a class conflict, since the sisters were brought up in different circumstances and since Philip, the snobbish expert who must be relied on to authenticate the stamps—played with dead-on weaseliness by Dylan Baker—tosses off earnest speeches about heritage and moral rectitude the way the others fire off profanities. Before you judge Jackie, the younger sister (played by the wonderfully pouty Alison Pill), too harshly for not contacting a lawyer, remember Philip’s sliminess, and consider how little anyone in Jackie’s position would expect from any professional. The first-rate cast also includes F. Murray Abraham, Bobby Cannavale and Katie Finneran, and the direction by Doug Hughes is cogent, swift and focused.



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