Inside Private Lives
nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
July 15, 2007
How often can you see a show where a near shouting match between the performer and the audience results in hearty applause and laughter?
That happened at Inside Private Lives, an ingenious piece of interactive theatre about ten controversial figures of the 20th century, with four or five featured in each performance. You may get Elia Kazan, the renowned director infamous for having "named names" during the McCarthy era. Or you may meet Marge Schott, the first woman to buy a Major League baseball team, who was known not only for leading her Cincinnati Reds to the World Series but also for making racist remarks. Although they are no longer alive, the fascination with these figures lives on, and this is attested to when we in the audience are given the opportunity to "talk back."
Here is how it works: Before the show begins, we are told that the audience will be assigned a role in each scene and that we are encouraged to participate as much as we like. Then the show is on. As each celebrity takes the stage, he or she gives a 10-minute monologue, speaking from a particular event in their life. They want something from us. It's our job to support, approve, question, or decline.
But do we grant them their request? Do we even get into "the game" to start with? The answer to the first question varies, but the answer to the second is a resounding "yes!"
Much credit goes to producer/actor Kristin Stone who conceived Inside Private Lives and has the tough job of starting the show and loosening us up. As Christine Jorgensen, the first American to receive sex reassignment surgery—turning herself from an ex-GI into a bombshell—Kristin delivers with high-voltage charm, flirting with men and women alike.
But this is New York, where everyone is an actor. When Bobby Sands, an IRA member who dies in prison after leading a hunger strike for 66 days makes his plea, a woman in the audience demanded, with professionally trained delivery, that Bobby give up the struggle for the sake of his family. "This is your sister, Bobby!" She cried dramatically. "I have a sandwich right here for you. Take it!" But Bobby is not at all put off. "This is much bigger than a sandwich." This exchange may initially give the impression that an actor has been planted to help along with the show—which the producer reassures afterwards that they never do—but the feeling goes away quickly, because the show simply doesn't need extra help. We become so involved that we actually resent anyone who "hogs the stage" so much that we can't get our own questions in!
Along the way light is shed on each character's personality and history. The verbal ping-pong leads to not just an outward game, but an inner struggle as well. Director Lee Michael Cohn sets a nice tempo for the exchange, and the actors have done their homework and written their own pieces. Adam LeBow as Elia Kazan is steadfast. Paul Ryan as Bobby Sands is deceptively subdued, until his dignified rage erupts. Julia Phillips is in your face, portrayed by a fiery Leonora Gershman, and Mary MacDonald's Marge Schott has the audience eating out of the palm of her hand.
If you go, you will have more fun if you talk. And by the end of it, you are likely to find yourself doing just that. I certainly did. I am going back to quiz Tokyo Rose and David Koresh, who are set to appear in coming shows.