nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 2, 2006
The program that Women's Project provides to audience members at The Cataract measures 11 inches by 16 inches (it's folded in half, making it about the size of a standard sheet of paper; unwieldy to work with in cramped theatre seating). Like almost everything else about this production of Lisa D'Amour's play, it's too big and it's trying too hard; it also does the piece a disservice by failing to prepare us for the complicated doings we're about to witness. The big tab sheet has an "at this theatre" blurb and an appreciation of Wendy Wasserstein and a gossip column, of all things; what it doesn't have is anything to tell us that The Cataract takes place in 1883 in Minnesota, or a note, such as the one in the typed copy of the script that I received in my press packet, providing meaningful and useful context for the show.
For The Cataract is a very literary play—my perusal of the script suggests it works better on paper than in the theatre, in fact; for its ambitions to be achieved, people watching it can use all the help they can get.
The plot itself is fairly easy to follow and explain. Cyrus and Lottie are a married couple living in Minneapolis, still relatively frontier territory in 1883. They are in debt, and so they decide to take in a couple from the South as boarders. The man, Dan, goes to work with Cyrus building a railroad bridge across the Mississippi; the woman, Dinah (who is not necessarily Dan's wife), helps Lottie fitfully with household chores. The presence of the new couple proves unsettling in surprising ways, however: Cyrus discovers, fairly soon, that he is in love (or at least infatuated) with Dan. And Lottie starts to realize that Dinah's anarchic, free-thinking approach to life holds attractions as well.
The presentation, through script and staging, is something else, however. The set, designed by Rachel Hauck, is made up of enormous pieces of wood, some of them planks on the floor of Cyrus and Lottie's house, others representations of beds and tables. On either side of the "house" are two areas filled with stage dirt; these depict Lottie's garden and the bridge work site (sometimes they depict both at the same time). It's a striking design, no doubt about it, but it calls attention to itself more than it provides a workable space for the play to be presented.
And the play itself works hard to be oblique. The language is deliberately stilted and, with much of the action, repetitive: a good deal of the piece is variations on a theme, the characters undressing, going to bed, dreaming/night-walking, waking, breakfasting, and heading off to work or the day's chores. I sensed that D'Amour built all of this very carefully, but I wasn't able to decipher what she was trying to communicate to me. Similiarly, aspects of the play that are deliberately unconventional—Cyrus's Brokeback Mountain moments; Dinah's supernatural abilities (she complains of a headache and then pulls a flower from the inside of her head)—feel designed to convey something beyond their gimmickry, but darned if I could figure out what.
The Cataract benefits from four fine, ingratiating performances. Vanessa Aspillaga (Dinah), Barnaby Carpenter (Cyrus), Tug Coker (Dan), and Kelly McAndrew (Lottie) are as appealing and skillful a quartet of actors as you'll find on any NYC stage at the moment, and they made me want to understand these characters and, more important, what we're supposed to be gleaning about them and ourselves as a result of investing time in getting to know them. But the play itself—so stylized, so special, so evidently striving to be important and unusual—ultimately lets them and us down, very much like the oversized playbills that we're forced to balance precariously on our laps as we watch the show.