The Less We Talk
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 18, 2009
The subtitle of Hoi Polloi's new theatre piece The Less We Talk is "A Meditation on Group Singing." I think we can possibly substitute words like "Political Organization" for "Singing" and arrive at the point of this arresting and unusual work: whenever the two dozen disparate characters in this play find common purpose in practicing one of their songs (these people are members of a choir), they harmonize beautifully in both the musical and social senses of that word. But when they're left to their own devices, the results are chaotic and ugly. The less we talk, the better off we are?
Now, I suspect that my reading of this work is probably simplistic and superficial. I enjoyed myself at The Less We Talk, but I have to admit that I found parts of it bewildering. When it begins, a choir practice is in progress. We watch and listen as these folks sing a variety of songs, beautifully; they rehearse some minimalist choreography as well, and regroup themselves in ways that are sometimes obvious (sopranos here, basses there) and other times less intuitive. People tentatively try things out: there's a segment, for example, when the group seems to be auditioning members to sing lead on a bluesy version of "Stuck on You."
In between songs, the characters relax. Sometimes this resolves itself in gentle quiet time (this person knits while that person closes her eyes and these other two talk softly to one another). But more often little cataclysms occur. Someone starts to tell a long-winded story, only to get rather soundly shouted down. Later, another fellow expostulates on religion and politics, to even bitterer results.
We also become aware that time is passing—apparently these people are in this rehearsal room for life. I sensed a deep metaphor here, but couldn't complete it.
There's also the fascinating 24th character, a Japanese man who lives on a sofa that's incongruously perched on one of the risers where the singers do their stuff. He goes through the motions of an "ordinary" day, sleeping, reading, washing, even cooking a (real) dinner on a portable hibachi stove. No one else in the room seems to understand him when he speaks, but communication happens nonetheless. I wasn't sure what to make of this fellow (though he's very entertaining to watch).
I didn't recognize all of the music—some of the pieces I knew included "Shenandoah," which is performed three times in three very different ways, and the Italian anti-fascist anthem "Bella Ciao"—but I suspect that director Alec Duffy, whose background is steeped in music of all kinds, has selected these pieces very carefully, though again I couldn't quite put my finger on their significance, apart from their delightful diversity.
The Less We Talk echoes earlier Duffy/Hoi Polloi creations in its interest in how humans organize themselves in new and "unnatural" situations. The music, when it comes, grounds the piece and renders it joyful. It's lovely to hear and interesting to witness.
Lots of credit goes to Duffy for an inventive staging on a very claustrophobic set; to Jessica Pabst for intriguing, character-evoking costumes; to music director Noah Aronson for the gorgeous arrangements; and to the 24-member cast, who are all doing fine work here, individually and, especially, as an ensemble...which may be the point.