nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
May 8, 2005
From the minute the “please turn off your cell phones, beepers, and pagers”
curtain speech devolves into a passionate rant on urban planning, it is clear
that Boozy is not your average musical. It’s more like the musical you
might get if you threw the collected works of Brecht, Robert Wilson, and Abbott
& Costello into a blender with a few college textbooks, a ride at EPCOT Center,
and a biography of Robert Moses. (For those who aren’t New York City history
buffs, Moses was the last of the great urban planners, the man responsible for
both the Verrazzano Bridge and the Cross-Bronx Expressway, among many other
projects). It’s a wild, inventive, action-packed exercise in tightly controlled
mayhem—so sit back and enjoy the ride.
The subtitle of Boozy is “The Life, Death, and Subsequent Vilification of Le Corbusier and, More Importantly, Robert Moses,” and that gives you a pretty good overview of the plot, such as it is. The story of Le Corbusier, a French modernist architect more famous for his theories than his actual buildings, serves as almost a prologue, and the starting point for the bizarre revenge plot that winds through the piece, but the majority of the play is about Moses.
Thrown into the mix are some over-the-top conspiracies for world domination (Goebbels, Roosevelt, and Mussolini—played at times by live rabbits, whose presence is in fact justified by the script in one of the evening’s silliest jokes—banding together to profit from World War II), a vengeful femme fatale (Le Corbusier’s ex-girlfriend, a.k.a. urban-policy reformer Jane Jacobs), and a fairly accurate condensed history of urban development policy in New York. And just in case that’s not complicated enough, the cast also includes dancing Freemasons, a crippled child of indeterminate ethnicity (their description, not mine) with a Cockney accent, and a Daniel Libeskind (the winning architect in the competition to redesign the World Trade Center site) imitator. (One of the press clippings indicates that Les Freres Corbusier, the company behind Boozy, invited Libeskind to perform as himself, but he declined.)
Amid all of that, if you can keep your attention focused, the show does present a moderately cogent re-evaluation of recent opinion on Moses, which, depending on how strongly you feel about him, is either refreshing, sacrilegious, disappointing, or inconsequential to your viewing experience. Although the play’s subtitle acknowledges the negative view of Moses that was popularized by Robert Caro’s biography The Power Broker, the creators are interested in opening Moses’ legacy for reexamination, reminding us that he was seen as an enormously popular visionary before he became demonized for his plan to demolish SoHo for an expressway.
I swear, it all makes cockeyed, manic sense by the time they’re through. This is a credit to the coherent vision of the co-creators—director/writer Alex Timbers, lighting designer Juliet Chia, and set designer David Evans Morris—and the rest of their production team (costume designer Jenny Mannis, video designer Jake Pinholster, sound designer Bart Fasbender, and choreographer Katherine Profeta). The production’s stylistic—and stylized—cohesion lets everyone involved get away with flourishes and digressions that might otherwise seem indulgent or aggressively and over-consciously “postmodern.” The self-indulgence isn’t entirely missing—sometimes they’re having a little too much fun with their technological toys, particularly in one video-simulcast sequence that seems unnecessary—but it’s kept to a minimum.
Timbers also brings out top-notch performances from his whole cast. The entire ensemble walks the very difficult line of performing tongue-in-cheek material in a highly stylized manner without ever seeming facetious or smarmy. There’s not a drop of condescension by the actors toward the audience or their characters; even when the narrative is mocking the characters, the actors are fully committed. Among the principals, I was especially taken by Nina Hellman as Jane Jacobs. Jacobs is the thread that ties together the play’s real-world story (more-or-less accurate biographies of Corbusier and Moses) and its off-the-rails counterpart (see the description of the Goebbels/Mussolini rabbit conspiracy, above), and Hellman finds both the seriousness of Jacobs’s passion for emergence theory and the camp in the revenge fantasies of a scorned Frenchwoman. Among the ensemble, special kudos for sheer bravura go to the loopy glee of the flamboyant Mayor LaGuardia (John Summerour) and his demented, drooling pageboy/love slave (Matthew DeVriendt).
Boozy is a madcap high-tech and high-concept farce. At times, its conceptual ambitions and its farcical ones collide: the play raises some serious questions about the future of our cities that are often obscured by the chaos of the manner in which it asks them. As far as I can tell, the play's broad strokes of Moses’s biography and philosophy are pretty accurate. But it’s hard to derive grounded opinions on urban policy from a play that also claims that Mussolini, Goebbels, and Roosevelt planned World War II to profit from housing developments. Nonetheless, this is a beautifully executed, smart, and fiercely original piece of theatre.