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.