‘History’ Posts

Park Odyssey Visits Staten Island

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

Finally touched base with Staten Island on my Park Odyssey blog. It was only a matter of time.

Park Odyssey Reaches 30 Posts

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

I’ve now posted over 30 entries on my Park Odyssey blog, all with text and photos. Here’s a sample shot from Astoria Park in Queens. Come on over and visit now!

Book Review: The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

Though subtitled “Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago,” this concise and fascinating piece of social history by no means requires a familiarity with the Bob Fosse musical. It’s about crime in Chicago. It’s an effective portrait of the golden age of newspaper reporting. It’s a multiple character study. But more than anything it’s about the cult of celebrity. We tend to think idol-worshipping exploded in the late twentieth century, but it ran rampant in the 1920s, juiced up by the many competing newspapers that once graced major cities — and nowhere more so than in the Second City.

There, during Prohibition, a crop of female killers became celebrities. Maurine Watkins, a talented greenhorn reporter for the Chicago Tribune, covered the trials, filing incisive and sarcastic reports that made her a popular correspondent. Disgusted by the way all-male juries kept acquitting glamorous female criminals, Watkins then wrote a successful play based on her reporting. The stage play Chicago established her career (though she never again matched its success). Two movie versions followed. The first was silent; the second starred Ginger Rogers but bastardized the story to comply with the morality code of the 1940s, which didn’t allow characters to commit bad behavior and get away with it.

Not until after Watkins had died, though, did the Bob Fosse musical come about. Its current Broadway production has become the longest-running revival in Broadway’s history, and between that, the tours, and the Best Picture-winning 2002 movie version of the musical, an awful lot of people know the story, however obscure the original play may be today. But you need not know it at all to get a lot out of this book.

Perry neatly tracks the stories that splashed across the front pages of the Chicago papers in 1924. “Beautiful” Beulah Annan, immortalized in the play as Roxie Hart, and sophisticated Belva Gaertner, the inspiration for the character of Velma, were only the most glamorous of a number of female prisoners who had murdered men, usually lovers or husbands. Perry’s account of their crimes and their trials shines a light on the attitudes of the time, so different from now. Women weren’t thought fit to serve on juries — they couldn’t be objective enough. And they weren’t tough enough to be trial lawyers, though the book also profiles a trailblazing young attorney named Helen Cirese who successfully represented the unglamorous convict Sabella Nitti.

For similar reasons, many people believed women couldn’t commit crimes unless something — drink, passion, the loose living that was blamed for so many problems at the time — had led them astray. “Violence, after all, was an unnatural act for a woman. A normal woman couldn’t decide to commit murder or plot a killing…The violent woman was by definition mentally diseased, irreparably defective.” Beulah had been “lured into the world of jazz and liquor, had broken her marriage vows, like so many young married women forced by financial necessity to work outside the home.” A “respectable lady [like Belva Gaertner] who shot her husband or boyfriend…didn’t scare men: She was a romantic figure, a representation of how much women in general, with their overflowing emotions, loved and needed their men.”

Maurine Watkins, intelligent, moral, and religious, couldn’t accept this, and crusaded in print for the women she believed guilty to get what they deserved. But, though the string of acquittals had been broken in another case, both Beulah and Belva got off despite strong evidence against them. In the process, even their lawyers became celebrities. Hearst’s sensationalizing papers, according to Perry, “sought to mold news to their liking, which meant the commonplace blown up bigger and better than in any of their competitors.” The “commonplace blown up”…just like today’s reality shows. Tens of thousands of strangers swarmed upon the funeral of Wanda Stopa, another beautiful killer who’d avoided trial by committing suicide — “group madness, a sight so incredible, it stayed with the reporter for years.” It led Watkins from Chicago to Chicago, “a deeply cynical satire of the celebrity mania that she saw as the dominant feature of twentieth-century urban life.” Perry’s analysis of the play’s genesis sums up both its theme and, to a degree, that of this book:

From her experiences as a reporter in Chicago, she’d determined that human imperfections, individual and collective, had become monstrous. Real life had become farce…traditional comedy and farce…comedy and tragedy…were all one and the same in a superficial modern world of mass communication and overpopulated, spirit-crushing cities, a world that produced anonymous men and women seized by insecurity and a frantic desire for money, status, and attention.

We know how straight-laced society reacts. From Mae West’s 1927 conviction for doing a “kootchie dance,” through Jim Morrison’s 1969 arrest in Miami for exposing himself, to the bizarre excoriation of Janet Jackson for her “wardrobe malfunction,” America has always been an uncomfortable mix of the puritanical and the freewheeling and licentious.

Maurine never wanted her play made into a musical. Perry isn’t sure why, but he makes a convincing case against a commonly supposed reason: that she’d become a born-again Christian and ashamed of having sensationalized the lurid stories she’d reported on. Maurine Watkins was religious all her life; she was never “born again.” And she hadn’t sensationalized and glamorized the murderesses; to the contrary, she’d tried her hardest to turn the tide against Beulah and Belva. This book, among its other accomplishments, restores and buttresses the reputation of Maurine Watkins, who for a brief shining moment was the top crime reporter of her day, and then turned her experiences into a bitter, cynical, but eternally fresh and powerful piece of our culture.

Originally published as “Book Review: The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry” at Blogcritics.

Theater Review: The Barker Poems: “Gary the Thief” and “Plevna”

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Maybe it ought to go without saying that one should go to the theater prepared to pay attention. But it doesn’t anymore, not when screen-conditioned young people no longer have the attention span to serve on a jury. So, fair warning: Potomac Theatre Project’s current production of The Barker Poems—two long poems by Howard Barker read as dramatic monologues—requires sustained attention. It’s shy of an hour long, but that’s a fair stretch when close listening is mandatory. This isn’t a production that will hit you over the head and drag you along with it. Don’t go sleepy; you’ll need your serious brain to meet Barker’s serious language.

Primarily a playwright, Barker proves a really fine dramatic poet as well. To start, the wondrous Robert Emmet Lunney performs “Gary the Thief,” which follows said thief through an epic series of existential adventures as he’s arrested and imprisoned. “I live among you/Hating you,” he addresses us; “I charm you/With the ease of one who holds/All effort in contempt.” Mr. Lunney’s performance does indeed seem effortless. Breezed from mood to mood by subtle, perfect lighting (Hallie Zieselman) and directed deftly by Richard Romagnoli, Lunney makes Gary a delightful, philosophical, and slightly dangerous rascal. A bit of a low-class Ulysses, he rises above and burrows below what regular folks seem to expect of him: “I ride History lightly as a leaf/On torrents which wash away the/Gates of prisons and of parks.”

Ultimately he seems to experience a kind of revelation, or passion, but his consistent sureness of himself keeps the ending ambiguous: if Gary can’t learn (“I did this for knowledge/But nothing came of it”), can he overcome? Is there anything to overcome? Perhaps only our skepticism about him. About whether by himself he can sustain our rapt interest for half an hour and take us somewhere we’ve not been before. Mission accomplished.

The second poem, “Plevna,” comes to us through the rapid-fire delivery of Alex Draper, who was so fine as Alan Turing in Lovesong of the Electric Bear. Subtitled “Meditations on Hatred,” the work is named for a Bulgarian city that was the site of a long siege in the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s, but Plevna stands in for all sites where the horrors of war rear up. Jarringly, our narrator has just stepped away from a cocktail party. Still nursing his drink, he brings us various points of view: “The hem of his [the priest's] cassock is stained/From the blood of horses…The emperor witnessed the decimation/From a platform made of planks…[Alexander] will not see death in such abundance/Or pain in such garlands again…” And the Sultan “is silent/Staring across the Straits/A cruiser made in South Shields unzips the placid pond.”

It’s a disturbing, at times bewildering ride, and in the end less successful as a piece of drama than “Gary.” It’s true that Mr. Draper, while bringing great liveliness to his performance, occasionally swallows a line. But in essence it’s not the fault of the performer or the crew. I think it’s simply that we read of war every day. We’re bombarded with new and old knowledge of atrocities here, there, and everywhere, world without end. We simply don’t need this, even from as great a writer as Barker, as much as we need the individual and irreproducible meta-yarns of Everyman-oddities like Gary the Thief, which can challenge our stodgy ways of looking at our violent and beautiful world.

What we do need, though, is more thought-provoking theater like this. As I said, don’t go sleepy. But go. The Barker Poems ran in repertory through August 1.

Photo by Stan Barouh


Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): The Barker Poems: “Gary the Thief” and “Plevna”” at Blogcritics.

Theater Review: Lovesong of the Electric Bear

Friday, August 6th, 2010

Alan Turing—mathematician, code-breaker, war hero, homosexual, victim of state-sponsored chemical castration, suicide—comes across as a tragic figure in just about any telling. But the English playwright Snoo Wilson has done what students of 20th century history might have considered impossible: turned the life of this visionary, who died by cyanide in 1954 just shy of his 42nd birthday, into an epic celebration.

He does it through an episodic, half-fantastical trip through the stations of Turing's life, guided by the stuffed bear, Porgy. Turing really did have a Porgy Bear. It even has its own Facebook page. But here Porgy comes to life as an antic, touchy jester who speaks with a quasi-Shakespearean flair. The script refers to Turing as a genius, but Porgy, played with unflagging energy and broad humor by Tara Giordano, is the genius (in the original sense) of this tale, the representative spirit who draws Alan, Scrooge-like, through scenes of boyhood, the cruelty of public school, hesitant then confident sexuality, cloak-and-dagger war action, and, of course, his work.

Turing was always inventing or conceiving something. Wilson's Turing, intensely logical, can't see the point in celebrating more than one Christmas (why was the fact that the Earth had revolved around the Sun one more time significant?) and insists there's no difference between a human and an equivalently smart machine. Yet he can cavort at a drag bar in New York and cultivate a friendship—even something of a platonic love affair—with a young female colleague. A realistically complex human? Or a cipher for a playwright's imagination? If there's something missing here, it's that Turing's genius is more referred to than shown. We get mostly a babe-in-the-woods version of him, and just his personal half. Fortunately, Alex Draper is so charming in the role that we quickly grow to love him and hope for the best, even as we know the worst will come.

As for the work, it appears in projections as falling numbers, codes, photos of machines. In one lovely scene the actress Cassidy Boyd (part of the excellent ensemble cast) appears before Alan and his father as if out of the ether, covered in numbers, like an angel from heaven. An opposing vision comes a bit later in the form of a female graduate student (Lilli Stein), grimy from working in the bowels of Turing's giant computer, who emerges to hear the tale of woe—the accusation of "gross indecency"—that will lead to his ruin. The great man, it turns out, has never spoken to her before.

Another issue is that we don't really see what leads to the act which frames the story: Turing's suicide. The death seems just another episode. The fairy-tale style in which it is presented matches the tone of the rest of the play, so it didn't bother me at the time, but on reflection, the fundamental question remains: what was Turing really like? We're asked to take it on faith that he was a socially isolated weirdo, not "comfortable with existence." The Turing we actually get to know here is, with the exception of a scene or two, merely a bit eccentric, and sweet as can be.

It would be wrong, however, to ask the play to be something it doesn't set out to be. It's meant, I think, to be a corrective to the tragic aura that suffuses our awareness of Turing. As such it thoroughly succeeds. Director Cheryl Faraone displays a virtuosic touch with quick changes of scene and the blurring of fantasy and reality, aided by fine sound, lighting, and projection and an extremely economical but thoroughly functional set.

Wilson has a great time making fun of theatrical conventions—Shakespearean bursts of elevated language, comedic slow-motion running, the way Porgy puppet-masters a school bully off the stage when his scene is up. "Read your Hamlet," an old doctor friend advises Turing shortly before his untimely end: his problem is "this mortal coil—existence." But that's the problem we all have. This slick production at Atlantic Stage 2 is a fine place to come and forget about it for a couple of hours.

Lovesong of the Electric Bear played in repertory through Aug. 1. 

Photos by Stan Barouh

——
Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): Lovesong of the Electric Bear” on Blogcritics.

Dead…from New York

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

I’ve revived my old “Dead…from New York” column begun (in print only) in the NY Hangover in the 90′s. A colleague of mine at Blogcritics, Victor Lana, is also contributing.

Check out the newest—oldest—and deadest New York City blog, on Blogcritics here!

Theater Review: Modotti by Wendy Beckett

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

The Italian photographer Tina Modotti (1896-1942)—artist, agitator, femme fatale—led a fascinating life at the intersection of art, politics, and idealism. A silent-movie actress, a comrade-in-arms of Diego Rivera in Mexico, a documentarian of and participant in the Communist movement, she deserves to be better known—and for her story to be much better told than this very bad play tells it. Modotti—by Wendy Beckett, author of the flawed but far better Anaïs Nin: One of Her Lives—is the worst thing I've ever seen Off Broadway.

Episodes in Modotti's life play out disconnectedly. Tina (Alysia Reiner) moves from political crisis to crisis and from lover to lover. Her unfortunate, idealistic husband is played by Andy Paris as a vain dandy one would think utterly unappealing to the deep-thinking and emotionally demanding Tina. The photographer Edward Weston, who becomes her mentor and lover, gets a wooden, mumbling, Shatner-esque portrayal by an utterly lost Jack Gwaltney. Suffering like the rest from a lack of direction, Marco Greco's Diego Rivera blusters through scene after interminable scene like a John Belushi character searching for a funny line. Only the young Cuban revolutionary whom Tina takes up with later on (played, again, by Paris) evinces the slightest bit of chemistry with our heroine, making their brief Act II bedroom scene one of the very few bright moments in a long, dull evening.

I wasn't sure whom I felt sorrier for, myself or the actors forced to deliver the painfully stilted dialogue through which the playwright insists on telling, not showing, this inherently interesting story. And with all that, we don't even get a good history lesson, as the script fails to provide enough of the context that a historical piece like this needs. The large projections of Modotti's bluntly beautiful photographs and Rivera's famous agitprop murals give a sense of what was at stake artistically and how socialist idealism fed the art of these passionate, creative minds. But the stills, alas, have a good deal more vibrancy to them than most of what happens on stage.  

Though Ms. Reiner starts off well, smoldering through the first scene, that bit of life is all too quickly extinguished amid the dry, amateurish exposition that follows. No Italian accent, no charismatic sexiness, no acting skills could be enough to give her a chance of salvaging this poorly conceived and poorly executed play.

Modotti runs at the Acorn at Theatre Row through July 3.


Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): Modotti by Wendy Beckett” on Blogcritics.

Two Weeks in Greece, All Six Parts

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Now available at Blogcritics for your reading pleasure! Start with Part 1 and follow the links, or navigate below.

Part 1: Athens
Part 2: Corinth, Nafplio, and Epidaurus
Part 3: Ancient Olympia
Part 4: Delphi and Athens
Part 5: Santorini
Part 6: From the Fish Taverns of Crete to the Jewish Museum in Athens


The Bourtzi Fortress in Nafplio

Two Weeks in Greece, and Butch Walker

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Part 1 and Part 2 of my series “Two Weeks in Greece” about our recent trip are available for your reading pleasure over at Blogcritics, along with a review of a Butch Walker concert (and I don’t go to too many rock concerts any more, so get it while it’s hot).


The Stoa of Attalos at the Ancient Agora, Athens. Photo by me.

Theater Review: Clybourne Park

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Note: See the end of this review for a discount code for tickets to Clybourne Park.

At nearly 40, Playwrights Horizons is such an established part of New York's not-for-profit Off-Broadway pantheon that it's easy to take it for granted and forget that it has a special mission, as indicated in its very name: to foster and develop excellent new plays and playwrights. The current production of Bruce Norris's poetically written and smartly plotted Clybourne Park bodes well for the new decade – for Playwrights Horizons, at least, if not for the chances of fundamental change in race relations in America.

Two clever ideas root the play. First, Mr. Norris looks back half a century to Lorraine Hansberry's iconic A Raisin in the Sun, about an upwardly mobile black family – and depicts the other side. A white family in a lily-white, primly racist middle class neighborhood have sold their house to a black family, eliciting resistance, first euphemistic and then raw, from the community embodied by the deliciously sleazy Karl (the effective Jeremy Shamos, seen recently as the cautious priest in Creature).

Badly damaged by the death of their war-veteran son, angry and repressed Russ (Frank Wood, who won a Tony for Side Man) and Bev (the superb Christina Kirk, who did fine work in the excellent Telethon last year) are packing up and leaving the neighborhood behind, along with, they hope, their sorrows. Bev is a quintessential 1959 period piece, a liberal-minded woman who believes intellectually in the equality of the races and takes pride in her "friendship" with her black housekeeper Francine (the quietly explosive Crystal A. Dickinson), but still talks down to Francine and her husband Albert (the smoldering Damon Gupton) without being aware of it.

The play's second original conceit is setting the second act 50 years later, in the present time, with the same actors playing different roles. Now they are a batch of youngish people haggling over what initially seem like trivial details of the design of a new house. The couple who want to tear down and rebuild are white, the couple who object are black, and the ties to the story of 50 years earlier slowly materialize as this much faster paced, funnier, but ultimately equally powerful second half progresses. By the time a contractor (played by an utterly transmogrified Mr. Wood) digs up the old trunk Russ had buried in the yard and plops the baggage of the ages literally on center stage, we've seen just how the ugliness of America's never-ending racial "conversation" has transformed over the decades – transformed, but hardly died down. Aided by Pam MacKinnon's commendably transparent direction and fine performances all around, Mr. Norris has dramatized his perceptive view of these changes (and lack thereof) with wit, skill, and heart.

It would seem a little dull of me not to put Clybourne Park in a bit of contemporary perspective, given that I've recently covered two other major plays on the subject of race. David Mamet's Race is minor Mamet, effective as far as it goes, and with some very worthwhile performances; yet after chewing over its provocations, one comes away feeling that one hasn't heard anything much really new. More satisfying all-around is The Good Negro, which I saw this winter in a very good Boston production. That play, however, is constructed (and was directed) in a consciously artful manner. Clybourne Park never feels self-conscious; it deals with larger-than-life issues with compelling life-sized characters and naturalistic dialogue – the hardest kind to write.  It's a marvelous accomplishment.

Clybourne Park runs at Playwrights Horizons through March 7. See below for a discount code.

Photos by Joan Marcus. 1) L to R: Damon Gupton, Crystal A. Dickinson, Annie Parisse, Jeremy Shamos. 2) L to R: Christina Kirk, Frank Wood.


Blogcritics reader discount: Use code "CPGR"
Limit 4 tickets per order. Subject to availability.

Order by February 21 with code CPGR and tickets are only:
$40 (reg. $65) for all performances Jan 29-Feb 14
$50 (reg. $65) for all performances Feb 16-March 7
Order online at www.playwrightshorizons.org. Use code CPGR.
Or:
Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily)
Or:
Print this page and present it at the Ticket Central box office, 416 West 42nd Street (Noon-8pm daily).

Theater Review (Boston): The Good Negro by Tracey Scott Wilson

Monday, January 18th, 2010

That’s right: Boston. I’m here for three months, four days a week or so, working as an editor at Book of Odds. So of course I’m taking the opportunity to check out some Boston theater. And I can't think of too many better ways to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we observed this past weekend, than to attend a performance of Tracey Scott Wilson's critically acclaimed The Good Negro. This also happened to be the opening weekend of the play's Boston premiere. It's the first play I've seen in Boston since my time here in the dimly remembered 1980s, but if it's characteristic of the quality of Boston's homegrown theater, I have a lot to look forward to during my stay in 2010.

After its critically acclaimed run at the Public Theater in New York last year, this award-winning exploration of the Civil Rights movement focused well-deserved attention on its author. The new, debut production in this even more northern city, with its own racially charged history, bodes well for the 2010 season of Company One, a resident troupe at the Boston Center for the Arts, where a full house greeted the play on Saturday night with whoops and cheers even before the performance had begun.

The audience's high hopes were not misplaced. This is a solid production of a very good play, brought to life by an excellent cast. It succeeds in humanizing the civil rights leaders who too often appear in history books as pure angels of perseverance and moral clarity. For example, it's fairly well known today that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a philanderer, but here we witness Rev. James Lawrence (the charismatic Jonathan L. Dent) – roughly based on Dr. King – struggling in a very human way with this major character flaw even as he doggedly pursues his vision of equality and freedom for his people.

It's 1962, and after unsuccessful attempts to galvanize the Movement in several other cities, Rev. Lawrence has arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, "the most segregated city in America," with his lieutenant, the emotional minister Henry Evans (the impressive Cliff Odle). They're joined by a newcomer, Bill Rutherford (Cedric Lilly), just arrived from Europe and something of a dandy. Though out of touch with the daily struggles and religious zeal of blacks in the American South, Rutherford brings badly needed organizational skills, so the three do their best to get along, with volatile and often humorous results. Concisely handled in the script, this interplay provides an important strand of the drama, focusing attention on the highly imperfect natures of the civil rights leaders who became legends.

One thing the leaders must find is a "good Negro" – a figurehead victim of racial injustice with a spotless character as well as a moving story. In Birmingham they encounter Claudette Sullivan, beaten and arrested for allowing her four-year-old daughter to use a whites-only bathroom. Not only is Claudette tossed in jail, the little girl too spends hours in lockup. Educated, well-spoken, living a quiet life without troublesome associations or activities, Claudette (the quietly dignified Marvelyn McFarlane) seems perfect. Unfortunately her husband Pelzie (the superbly smoldering James Milord) isn't at all keen on subjecting himself and his family to the murderous dangers of the spotlight, and with very good reason.

All this takes place under the watchful eyes (actually the electronic ears) of two FBI agents, who bug the Movement's offices and enlist the prejudiced but not entirely unreasonable Tommy Rowe (the excellent Greg Maraio) to infiltrate the local KKK, hoping to head off any violence. They also do everything they can to impugn the characters of the civil rights leaders, leading to a powerful confrontation between the philandering Lawrence and his sturdy wife, Corinne (the very fine Kris Sidberry) – but also, ironically, to shocking violence. It comes in a masterly stroke of surprise, and we spend the play's last few scenes aquiver.

Boston area theatergoers have a great way to start their year and this well-acted, well-directed production deserves attention beyond the Martin Luther King Day celebration. If you're in the area, don't miss it.

The Good Negro runs through Feb. 6 at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Theater Review: The Lesser Seductions of History

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

I usually find it disconcerting when a play's skeleton is patently visible, especially a play that aspires to realism. Maybe it's just me, but I remember, even as a child, having to overcome the embarrassed chill the Stage Manager in Our Town gave me with his narration, and only gradually settle into enjoying the show. "The name of our town is Grover's Corners…" I want to be immersed in the world of the play, not given a set of water wings and steered by Mom and Dad.

Another thing that bugs me is when a playwright (or a musician or artist, for that matter) pounds a message too hard. I hate being preached to. Even by someone with whom I agree.

Impressively, then, August Schulenburg's The Lesser Seductions of History narrated, steered, and preached its way into my heart. With an agile cast, and under Heather Cohn's crisp direction, there is no stopping this beautifully written juggernaut, even as it wears its structure on its sleeve.

Schulenburg has bitten off a lot here. In terms of story, he aims to present no less than the entire decade of the 1960s – Camelot, the counterculture, drugs, the sexual revolution, Apollo, Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement (nonviolent and otherwise) – in one evening of theater. And damned if he doesn't do it.

The Flux Theatre Ensemble is known for ambitious productions. Their superb Pretty Theft, for example, was big and sprawling too, though not to this extent. As in Pretty Theft, multiple storylines play out simultaneously on one stage. Eleven precisely drawn characters dance through the decade, illustrating through a quick succession of mostly short scenes their own messy dreams and devastations, while shouldering the zeitgeist they are also asked to embody. They become real to us while representing movements and ideas as well. It's a heavy load but Schulenburg's writing is pointed enough, and the players deft enough, to carry it with seeming ease, and they rivet our attention for two-plus hours.

The ensemble is talented, game, and for the most part well cast. Especially affecting are Ingrid Nordstrom and Christina Shipp as estranged sisters Anisa and Lizzie, one cerebral, the other a troubled free spirit. Both struggle and ultimately fail to live to see their respective triumphs – for scientist Anisa, the moon landing; for flower-child Lizzie, a genuinely valid reason for being. As precisely as the play is structured, the lives it depicts are anything but neat. Therein lies the real accomplishment.

A few times the structuring feels like too much. The stories are told well enough through the characters that I wasn't sure we needed the year-by-year "chapter" divisions – it's quite clear that years are passing, even if we don't know or recall exactly what years Ranger 3 missed the Moon and the Doors broke on through. (A helpful timeline in the program informs us of these and many other facts referenced in the play.)

The narrator/chorus (Candice Holdorf), called "One" in the program, is the genius (in the original sense) of the age, representing ideals like Progress as well as their flip side – the pain and uncertainty that afflict real people seeking their place in the world. An omniscient spirit, "One" mostly watches but, like Athena guiding Odysseus, she comes down to earth to steer when needed, and can get frustrated with her charges' obtuseness. Unlike Athena, she's always high-minded, never petty – and occasionally grating.

"One" sets in motion one of the production's especially impressive sequences, a backward-spinning of time in which the characters nail, rapid-fire, the moments of fateful chance or decision that led them to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where the play's violent, climactic scene occurs. "If I hadn't seen that girl swimming in the waves…" Schulenburg has very cleverly swirled his characters together and apart and together again in different ways, so that their fates coalesce here.

In another remarkable scene the characters sequentially recite Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech while continuing through their own separate scenes, in character, somehow making those titanic lines resonate with these little people's moments. It's one of several sparkling moments in the play when you hold your breath, thinking, Are they actually going to get away with this?, and happily they do.

Except for a slightly disappointing drag near the end, where the final year is more told than shown, the energy never flags, and even that one slowdown is rescued by a beautiful ending. We forgive "One" for being so demanding; in the end she's made a damn good case for activism. Extra kudos go to the moody sound design by Asa Wember, Becky Kelly's understated but right-on costumes, and the rest of the production staff for helping the director make this thick stew flow like clear water.

The Lesser Seductions of History continues through Nov. 22 at the Cherry Pit, 155 Bank St., New York. Tickets ($18) are available online or by calling TheaterMania at 212-352-3101.

Photo by Tyler Griffin Hicks-Wright.