Theater Review: The Buddha Play: The Life of the Buddha Assembled from the Original Texts

Books, many, piled haphazardly about the floor. A comfortable, well-worn armchair. A lamp.

Unrolled scrolls of rice paper form a striped backdrop. The incidental music is by Phillip Glass and is familiar – a little too familiar for comfort? You sense right away you're about to experience something peaceful, as theater goes. But you fear that it might also be saccharine.

Have no fear. Evan Brenner's one-man play, produced and directed by David Fuhrer, is a simple piece of theater, but not simple-minded. Mr. Brenner plainly and engagingly recites from the oldest Buddhist sutras, known as the Pali Canon, recounting the life of Siddhartha Gautama, who became forever known as the Buddha. He brings the characters alive, not histrionically, but through measured, focused, artful talk and movement.

The Baruch Performing Arts Center's Nagelberg Theater may be the most subterranean performance space in New York City. The staircases seem to take you down forever. (Magically, though, there's cell phone service – it's a very modern space indeed.) Its depth seems appropriate for the deep thoughts on stage. Yet there is an inherent discrepancy between the tension and catharsis we typically expect of Western drama, and the meditation and lack of goal-orientation that characterize Buddhism and its teachings.

And indeed as the play begins it feels more like storytelling than "drama"; but it slowly becomes suspenseful in spite of itself. Gautama does not take lightly his decision to leave behind his rich inheritance and "go forth" as a seeker of salvation. And after he has achieved Nirvana he continues to live in a warlike world, with followers, family – and the Devil periodically prodding him away from his path.

Hong Sooyeon's ghostly, effective lighting and the music cues assist Mr. Brenner in pushing the mood gently from dark to light, calm to questing. Yet despite a devastatingly violent turn of events, there is little sense of tragedy. After all, everything that lives must die.  And not everything must suffer; those who have little dust in their eyes may learn to achieve the cessation of suffering, and hence salvation.

And so there may be an affinity between theater and the Buddha's teachings after all. Seeing a well-made theater piece, we do let our sufferings cease, at least for a time. The talented Mr. Brenner's story-time piece blossoms into a humble, graceful, and worthwhile teaching. And a really nice way to spend an hour and half.

The Buddha Play runs through Nov. 1 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. Tickets online or call (646) 312-4085.