Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Review - Aliens with Extraordinary Skills - Theatre Unbound - Maybe It’s Me - 3 stars

I’m honestly starting to wonder not “is it the play, or is it the production?” but “is it me?”  Theatre Unbound’s latest production is the dark comedy Aliens With Extraordinary Skills by award-winning, Romanian-born playwright Saviana Stanescu.  It’s labeled for mature audiences and they aren’t kidding around.  This play wrestles with the dark side of the immigrant’s dream of the United States of America and takes a skewer to the idea of your typical romantic comedy.  In fact, Stanescu’s play is so good at undercutting the notion of a happy ending that when we kind of get one, we really don’t buy it.

“He is afraid someone will come and cut his wings.”

Nadia (Anna Sutheim) and Borat (Adam Gauger) are clowns.  No, really, professional clowns - red-nose-wearing, balloon animal-making clowns.  From Moldova and Russia, respectively.  They’re currently in America, supposedly for a job that brought them here, but the job and their papers are, shall we say, a little dodgy.  So agents of the INS (Benjamin Heer and Stephen Houtz) are constantly on their trail, seeking to send them back where they came from.  The INS agents become more of a mental than literal boogeyman for much of the play, never far from Nadia’s thoughts when she’s starting to doubt herself. 

“Enough is enough.  Thicken your skin.”

Nadia rents couch space from Lupita (Stephanie Ruas), a recent immigrant who actually has a Green Card to work.  Currently, Lupita’s job is as a pole dancer in a local strip club.  It pays well, and Lupita has the self-esteem to keep the job from getting her down.  This is New York, so naturally Lupita wants to be an actress, but she also has to be realistic about paying the bills.  Lupita and Nadia befriend former musician and barely functional alcoholic Bob (Matt Wall), whose sense of humor helps lighten their days a little.

“You’re another horny immigrant with no papers.”

The whole cast does a great job of bringing all of Stanescu’s characters to life under Melissa Simmons’ direction.  Where it all kind of comes apart for me is the tone and the structure of the story.  What I’m still trying to wrap my head around is the “why” of it all.  What’s the point here?  The way it’s set up, Aliens With Extraordinary Skills could easily be an indictment of the ridiculous shallowness of most romantic comedies.  It seems poised to put the knife in, but then it doesn’t do it.  Instead, large sections of the play come off as a half-hearted attempt at a darker sort of romantic comedy, but without anything to really back it up at the end.

“You can’t imagine how hungry you get when you’re dressed like a cheeseburger.”

Aliens With Extraordinary Skills could be saying that love is a luxury that only people who are considered full citizens have the privilege to indulge in.  Those without proper paperwork, or even those considered to be foreign or different, aren’t allowed the breathing room to fall in love for less than mercenary reasons.  But again, if that’s the point, the play really doesn’t stick the landing on that thematic thread either.  The play dances around it, and even gets pretty near it sometimes, but like a number of characters in the play, the play itself can’t seem to commit.

“I want to disappear in that crack in the floor.”

Aliens With Extraordinary Skills could also just be about what a horror show it is to be a woman without means in America, where one of your only avenues of salvation, if you’re still young and attractive, is to monetize your body to separate men from their money.  And the men don’t respect you for it, even though they’re the ones who are setting the rules that leave you few other options.  But here yet again, while that’s clearly the world the play lives in, the way the plot plays out that seems to be beside the point rather than the actual point.

“This role is not for you.  You gotta star in something else.”

Honestly, the staggering amount of suspension of disbelief that’s involved in swallowing the story is the thing that kneecaps the play over and over again, just when it might be building up a little momentum and forward motion.  And now I’m going to have to employ some spoilers on events in the plot to explain this point.  For any given plot you’re allowed one head scratching thing, to get the story moving, as long as the rest of the plot makes sense according the logic of the world of the play.  You can make the rules of your world, you just can’t set them and then break them all, otherwise you don’t really have any rules and the whole thing’s a mess.

Minor Spoiler Alert

For Aliens With Extraordinary Skills, that one head scratching thing is the fact that Nadia and Borat came to the U.S. on a “clown visa.”  Now, I’m sure there are special exceptions made all the time for artists who are touring America from other countries.  This clown visa could be such a thing.  But then Borat immediately undercuts that by saying the papers weren’t really legit - so the reason they came over in the first place is, what exactly?  I realize for the purposes of the plot they need to be “free agent” hapless clowns, alone with no large organization (say, a touring company, circus, etc.) to back them up, so they’re at the mercy of society.  But then why not just make them both exceptional clowns, actual artists, with their own particular brand of clowning that’s significant enough to make me believe that they’d be let in the country in the first place?  Then, OK, they decide to overstay their visas to make a better life for themselves or their families back home or they (as the play seems to want them to do) fall in love and don’t wish to go?  Or perhaps they are part of a larger unit that goes bust and leaves them stranded with bad papers? (And maybe the play was trying to say that was their situation and it was fuzzy enough that I missed it.)  But the play doesn’t seem interested in the actual art of clowning.  It just wants people to be able to make balloon animals and wear a funny nose.  (Since I know a few clowns in real life, I was kind of offended by the laziness of the use of clowns here just for comic effect.)  The whole setup is based on a flimsy excuse that strains credulity, and then things just snowball from there.  And I’d be more inclined to say, “hey, it’s just a comedy, go easy on ‘em, don’t expect so much logic.”  But Aliens With Extraordinary Skills is dealing with some fairly weighty stuff, and with this as its foundation, I found it hard to take anything seriously, even the things they wanted me to.

Major Spoiler Alert

For instance, the relationships between people.  At the end of Act One, Borat visits Lupita on the job and watches her dance.  It’s the first time we see them together onstage.  He says some pretty horrible things to her, and is all but masturbating in front of her.  She storms out, end of act one.  Act Two, suddenly she’s in his cab and they’re in a relationship?  Because in a series of events that we never see, Borat’s been giving her free cab rides home every night for a few weeks.  Why would she even get into his cab the first time?  Why does any of this make him boyfriend material?  The Borat we see before the strip club and after the strip club, yeah, he seems like a nice guy, but I’m sorry, we saw him at the strip club.  That guy’s a hard No vote now.  (Now, my standards may be part of the reason I’m still single so consider the source.)  To really kill the so-called potential of this relationship in the play, Borat admits that the fact that marrying Lupita would get him citizenship isn’t a non-factor in his attraction to her.  Also, the best he can come up with for why he likes her is that she’s pretty.  When pressed, he also manages to say he thinks she’s smart.  But honestly, we have no evidence of any of this.  Nothing takes place on stage to actually build their relationship while we watch.  We’re just supposed to play along, believe what the play tells us.

“You have a problem.  You’re a clown with expensive tastes.”

This is where the episodic nature of the play really works against it.  We don’t get to see these people get to know each other, and we don’t get to know them either, so there’s nothing to root for.  They’re not people, they’re chess pieces being moved around the board when the writer wants to make a point.  There’s only four fully human characters in the show, and it still feels too crowded because the play is trying to buzzsaw through so much plot in so little time that any chance for the characters to actually live and breathe and develop some dimension is lost.  This isn’t the actors’ fault.  Everyone in the cast is doing the best they can to create full human beings on stage, and they do the very best with the material they’re given.  It just doesn’t allow them to make much progress before undercutting them with yet another time jump or plot twist. (Oh, now someone’s drinking, now they’re in prison and getting deported for drunk driving without a license, wait, what?)  There are some really good performances here, but they get lost in this script.

“We left everything for nothing.”

The script also does a poor job of presenting major events in the story.  Lupita allows Nadia to take on one of her exotic dancing gigs at a fancy party for rich people in order to make some extra money (offstage, of course, we don’t see it).  (Set aside for the moment how clearly clueless Nadia is about the expectations of this job, and how Lupita should know better than to send her out on her own into a situation like that.  The plot needs it to happen, so it’s gonna happen, even if people have to play dumb to get us there.) Something bad happens to Nadia at this party. The way Nadia describes it, it sounds harrowing, and a narrow escape from sexual assault.  Bob (again in events we never see) comes and gets her and gives her a ride home (set aside for the moment that Borat has a cab and a phone, he just doesn’t answer when Nadia calls and it’s never explained why). Nadia is traumatized, but she’s already told the audience why, so Bob gets her settled.  There’s vague talk of persevering, but the audience is thinking, Nadia’s had a real scare, but she’ll bounce back.  Next (TWO scenes after the events in question), Lupita is talking to Nadia as if she’s actually been raped and even taken the morning after pill.  Excuse me, what? If that was supposed to be implied by Nadia’s story, that’s kind of a big leap.  The things the script chooses to make explicit or leave fuzzy feel completely random.

OK - Spoilers Alert Over

But maybe it’s me.  Maybe I’m just not engaging this particular brand of storytelling in the way I’m intended to.  It may just be triggering certain things for me that make me resist it where another audience member wouldn’t.  We certainly need more honest stories about how present day immigrants come to this country - the why and the how.  We certainly need more honest stories about how this country treats the people it lets in, through the front or the back door.  We certainly need more stories about how women navigate the current world of sometimes thoughtless and cruel men, who are often thoughtless and cruel because they don’t understand how tilted the playing field is in their favor.  We certainly need more honest stories about how anyone can find anyone else to love in this world, and find a way to make it work.  Aliens With Extraordinary Skills tries to be one of those honest stories.  I’m just not sure - despite the best efforts of everyone at Theatre Unbound - how successful it is. (at Gremlin Theater space through September 24, 2017)

3 Stars - Recommended

(poster art courtesy of Theatre Unbound - graphic design by Greg Vanselow)

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