That's What We're Here For
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 17, 2006
Ian W. Hill's latest opus, That's What We're Here For, is so grandly ambitious that trying to stage it at the Brick under summer festival conditions is like trying to stuff an elephant into a shopping bag or, perhaps more accurately, trying to paint Seurat's Sunday Afternoon of the Island of La Grande Jatte with a paint roller: it just doesn't fit, and the right tools don't quite seem to be available.
This does not mean that this piece isn't one of the most brilliantly conceived shows of the festival (or, for that matter, the whole summer); just that we're almost certainly not seeing everything that Hill envisions for it. It's billed as an American pageant, and its conceit is to tell the history of the United States since World War II through a day in the life of a typical, nuclear American family; they hurtle through the decades and the concomitant cultural changes with breakneck speed, morphing from steady if uncertain keepers of the national flame to disaffected, disconnected lost souls who have more questions than answers about what their life signifies.
At least, I think that's what Hill is going for: the play's throughline is a little uneven, with the plot communicated in stylized vignettes that alternate between Beckettian dialogues and lip-synched and/or live recreations of a variety of "found" iconography, ranging from old commericial jingles to Cold War-era high school films to promotional songs created by giant corporations for their own internal use. Most of these recreations are staged as cheerfully vapid musical numbers of the kind you might have found on a family variety show 40 years ago (think The King Family or Andy Williams); these are at once entertaining, funny, and alarmingly pointed. Other sequences, like one set in a beatnik hangout, uses original choreography and (I think) clips from found poetry to set a more immediate kind of mood. And other segments, like one near the end that features a rendition of "Jesus Christ Superstar" in either Korean or Japanese are just downright giddy, kitschy, scary fun.
Hill's point is obvious, if perhaps not always clear, and I wonder if his passion for his theme has clouded his selectivity here just a bit. I suspect also that he may be wearing too many hats as the show's conceiver, author, director, designer, narrator, and one of its actors.
His collaborators are doing remarkable work here, bringing the complicated and varying styles of the piece to vivid life throughout the 2+ hour running time. The actors are Gyda Arber and Bryan Enk, both very effective as an Angel and a Devil; Fred Backus, Stacia French, Jorge Cordova, and Maggie Cino as the nuclear family; and Danny Bowes, Josephine Cashman, Roger Nasser, Yvonne Roen, and Alyssa Simon as everybody else (a lot of everybody elses). Backus is doing particularly strong work here; he has some moments in the second act that are knockouts, suggesting the raw power that That's What We're Here For could probably command from start to finish if it were more focused and less diffuse.