The Really Big Once
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 15, 2010
Near the end of The Really Big Once, Target Margin Theater's new rumination on the making of Tennessee Williams's 1953 play Camino Real, one of the characters recalls a stinging review of the Williams play that called it "a freakish, avant-garde misstep." The same could be said about The Really Big Once, which bum rushes the audience with an onslaught of experimental theater cliches so mercilessly self-indulgent, self-conscious, and self-referential (do you detect a pattern here?) that it's nearly impossible to follow.
All of which begs the question: why? Why is this potentially fascinating story told in such a willfully elusive manner? And why is it so captivating to its' creators? Neither question gets answered in the course of The Really Big Once's 80-minute running time, leaving the audience to shake its collective head in confusion and frustration.
The play's focus is Williams's collaboration with legendary director Elia Kazan. Their work on Camino Real signified a radical break from theatre naturalism for both of them, especially Kazan. When it opened on Broadway, the play was savaged by the critics and reviled by audiences, and sent both men flying back into the arms of naturalism. The Really Big Once builds its thesis on the premise that the history of contemporary American theatre—much of which Williams and Kazan were responsible for anyway—would have been significantly different if Camino Real had succeeded with the masses.
Of course, I only know all of that because it's clearly stated in The Really Big Once's press materials—none of which the average audience member has access to. And none of which is discernible based on what's happening on stage. The play eschews linear narrative in favor of indirect postmodern collage. Fragments of documentary sources—letters, journal entries, interviews—and sections from Camino Real get mashed up in a fractured and jaunty fashion seemingly designed to keep the audience off-balance: multiple conversations proliferate and overlap throughout, all of which are impossible to follow and none of which becomes a clear focal point; actors switch identities with jarring frequency, all taking turns playing Williams, Kazan, and whomever else; flourishes of gold glitter adorn everyone's faces for no obvious reason. Any familiar theatrical anchor that an audience member might latch on to is out to sea here.
For those who are able to follow it, however, The Really Big Once (which has no credited author, by the way) doesn't break any new ground illuminating its subjects. There is nothing here about Williams or Kazan that most theatergoers don't already know or couldn't unearth with a quick Google search. And the production certainly doesn't prove its thesis, which, as the evening wears on, begins to feel more like a personal lament than anything else.
It's hard to know what director David Herskovits intends with this piece, especially since it feels like it's designed to alienate more than to enlighten. The five-member cast—McKenna Kerrigan, John Kurzynowski, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Hubert Point Du-Jour, and Steven Rattazzi—all of whom have proven themselves to be gifted and reliable players on previous occasions, soldier on with stiff upper lips even though they look like they've been set adrift in a leaky boat. Which emphasizes how joyless the experience of watching The Really Big Once is: if the actors aren't even having fun, then how can the audience? By submitting everyone in the room to its sensory overloading barrage of aesthetic tics, The Really Big Once just proves to be an exhausting chore.