On The Border
nytheatre.com review by Anthony C.E. Nelson
November 16, 2007
We've all been there. You sit down to watch a play, the lights come up, and within a few moments it's clear that, no matter how many talented artists have worked on the production, for whatever reason it simply doesn't work. Sometimes, something almost magical happens and the actors seem to be in on it, and everyone has a good time despite the fact that the show isn't very good. And sometimes everything falls flat, no one involved seems to be having any fun, and you sink into your seat and wait for the show to end.
Unfortunately, On the Border, at the Medicine Show Theatre, is an example of the latter. The synopsis as given on the press materials is "Walter Benjamin, groundbreaking thinker, is fleeing from the Nazis in 1940. On his last night on Earth, dreams of friends, music, art, and history engulf him." What this actually amounts to is a series of historical figures such as Bertolt Brecht and Frank Kafka being introduced one by one, and then a bunch of stuff happens. Sometimes people try to convince Benjamin to emigrate to America, or to Palestine. Unfortunately, as the play focuses on Benjamin's last night on Earth, he is not particularly interested in doing anything except possibly penning a goodbye letter. Writer Howard Pflanzer and director Barbara Vann use this meandering trajectory as a jumping off-point to insert numerous philosophical discussions alongside vaudevillian Nazi jokes and Dada-esque bits of business that seem to have been lifted from a performance art piece.
The energy of the group pieces is listless and under-rehearsed. Actors stumble on lyrics in songs, don't give a lot of enthusiasm to their jokes, and occasionally seem lost. The play does feature good actors like Charles J. Roby and Alok Tewari who try gamely to give some poignancy and weight to the scenes of dialogue from Benjamin's life, but, as written, there's not a clear enough story for us to really care.
I will give some praise to Uta Bekaia, who is credited with the costumes and "décor." The set dressing, meant, I suppose, to convey the tumult in Benjamin's mind, is an artfully chaotic arrangement of what looks like every set piece the Medicine Show had in storage, and the costumes effectively convey the period of the 1940s.
I have no doubt that a number of talented artists worked on On the Border, and I'm sure they will go on to create interesting pieces. But, for whatever reason, this time it simply did not work.