Tom Ryan Thinks He’s James Mason….
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 13, 2011
It's not really any of my business, but if I were Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, I'd be feeling pretty left out of things right now. These two gentlemen—hardly slouches in the world of Hollywood screenwriting, by the way; the former wrote Forbidden Planet and Flying Down to Rio, while the latter wrote several of the James Bond movies—are the authors (story and screenplay) of the film Bigger Than Life, a 1955 not-so-well-known (is it even a cult film?) flick about a man who is given cortisone for a serious medical condition and winds up becoming psychotic as a result of the drug's vicious but little-understood side effects. Bigger Than Life is the source material for the current Incubator Arts show, which is created and directed by Daniel Fish and bears the unwieldy title Tom Ryan Thinks He's James Mason Starring in a Movie By Nicholas Ray in which a Man's Illness Provides an Escape from the Pain, Pressure and Loneliness of Trying to be the Ultimate American Father, Only to Drive Him Further Into the More Thrilling Though Possibly Lonelier Roles of Addict and Misunderstood Visionary. Yes, I know: cinema is the director's medium; but Nicholas Ray, who directed Bigger Than Life, didn't make up its dialogue; Hume and Maibaum did. Their words are the text—the crux—of Fish's new opus, yet their names are nowhere to be found in the press materials or program.
Indeed, it is perplexing that Ray not only gets billing in the title, but also in the much shorter subtitle, which declares Fish's work "an x-ray of Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life." I'm not really sure what an x-ray of a movie looks like, but I can tell you with a lot of certainty that we do not see even the bare bones or structural concepts underlying Ray's work on that film in this play. What we do see are the actors Tom Ryan and Christina Rouner (who, come to think of it, deserves to be upset about the billing as well) performing what I took to be all of the dialogue of Bigger Than Life, almost entirely unencumbered by any sort of naturalistic or even interpretive trappings (design, costume, or even blocking) save their considerable talents as actors. Ryan and Rouner play all the characters in the story, in many cases taking on the same role at different times and in a few virtuosic vignettes taking all of the characters at the same time in a kind of tour de force solo monologue. There's no attempt made to root us in location or setting; no props at all except a pitcher of milk, a drinking glass, a miniature blimp in the shape of a football, a black magic marker, and two cigarettes, one of which is smoked by Ryan during the show (secondary smoke avoiders: you've been warned) and the other of which is crushed out into a coke can that is the only set piece on stage. There are also two portable lighting units whose locations on stage are occasionally shifted by either Ryan or Rouner.
And there are a few lines of dialogue that are surely not from the film, including a tasteless "joke" targeting Tovah Feldshuh that was told twice though it didn't deserve to be told even once.
Hume and Maibaum's story is actually fairly compelling, not to mention timely in its way; but our attention isn't really on the story so much as on the irritatingly strange way it's being conveyed to us. Unlike the previous Incubator Arts offering Dance Marathon, in which recursion and meta-theatre enlarged the audience experience by immersing us in a world we'd likely not encountered before, Tom Ryan Thinks... is a Brechtian alienation game in which all that's accomplished, from the onlooker's perspective, is a complete and total detachment from what's happening around him or her.
I imagine that Tom Ryan Thinks... is an invigorating acting exercise for its co-stars; and in its way, by making us supply so many of the details surrounding the dialogue, it's an exercise for the audience's imagination, as well. (Ryan and Rouner and, oh yes, Messrs. Hume and Maibaum deserve credit for crafting and delivering dialogue that's evocative enough to spark our imaginations in this way.)
But beyond this rudimentary investigation of an idea, nothing else interesting happens during Tom Ryan Thinks... I was aware of a director and, to a lesser extent, two actors, figuratively jumping up and down and shouting "look at me! look at me!" And I couldn't figure out why I should look.