nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 29, 2008
If you were following the downtown/indie theater scene in NYC during the first four years of this decade, then you know about Mono, the innovative show created by Steven Tanenbaum. With its signature rude sock puppets leading the charge, Mono became as near to a cult phenomenon as any contemporary play has done, energizing audience members in the now-gentrified Lower East Side with its singular take on interactive theatre.
Mono's back, kind of, in Tanenbaum's newest work, PRE. The interactivity and the sock puppets are gone, but the energy and ingenuity are not: this is one of the most intense and skillfully crafted and staged works of theater I have seen in a very long time.
PRE takes place on September 15, 2001, the Saturday night after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Mono's cast members—except for one, who is conspicuously and disturbingly missing—have all gathered at their theatre, the sadly now-defunct Surf Reality, an hour and a half before the scheduled showtime. Should they perform? If they do, will anyone show up?
Based on what actually happened that night, and inspired by New York City mythologies both pre- and post-9/11 (notably a passage from E.B. White's Here Is New York, which you can read on the show's website), PRE mixes up every-day-ordinary backstage trauma with a heightened extraordinary variation on same to explore some fundamental truths about our humanity. Played mostly in real time, as the cast, director, and writer try to figure out what they should/need to do on this singular night, PRE packs into its 80 minutes more than seems possible: backstage horseplay, romance, show biz legend (there's very much a "show must go on" thing happening), even dream sequences and flashbacks. It's fast, tight, funny, very raw and yet surprisingly sentimental.
Tanenbaum's script and expert direction keep us focused on what feels like a dozen story lines and multiple distractions without ever letting us get confused. PRE captures the diffuse discombobulation that New Yorkers went through in those days right after 9/11; it also gets the specific energy of putting on a show exactly right. And it does so without ever becoming maudlin or serious, but also without indulging in too much gallows humor.
The cast of 16 does spectacular work here, executing a script that's both complicated and emotionally raw with precision and conviction. Three of the actors—Lawrence Jansen, Nick Paglino, and Dai Ishiguro—are playing themselves (or versions of themselves; they were in the original Mono), and they are especially impressive (and Jansen is like a force of nature: what a fine actor he is!). Nina Lisandrello is very effective as the Director, and Brett Glass has a cameo as the Writer for which Tanenbaum provides some self-deprecating laughs at his own expense. Anna Elwood, Kerryn Feehan, Kat Garson, Keara Gorman, Marianna McClellan, and Tchelet Semel are all fine as the Mono actresses (though I wish their roles were a little less archetypal). Kristen Abate is terrific as Nicole, who has arrived for an audition (!), and JR Dziengel is quite funny as Robert, the venue owner (his depiction is something of an inside joke for folks who remember Surf Reality).
PRE nails the look-and-feel of an era that feels utterly gone from our consciousnesses: not just the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when, as the show's program reminds us, "all New Yorkers acted as if they were part of an ensemble," but the funky rebellious spirit of the first wave of indie theater, when Tanenbaum and others set up shop in ramshackle storefronts and tenements in the Lower East Side ahead of the trendy clubs and restaurants and shops that have since moved in. It's all worth looking at again, especially now in this pivotal Election Year, and especially in this production that's informed so much by people like Tanenbaum who really lived it.