On the Culture Front: The National at Celebrate Brooklyn, The Flaming Lips at Summerstage, and the Lincoln Center and Ice Factory Festivals.

07/29/2010 10:33 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Lincoln Center Festival wrapped up this past week, and overall I was pretty disappointed with the shows I saw. Simon McBurney's experimental theater company Complicite has a well-deserved reputation for putting on mind-bending works that transcend the trappings and conventions of the medium -- Mnemonic explored the nature of the human memory with some of the most engaging audience participation that I have ever experienced. It's sad to say, though, that A Disappearing Number has very little of this magic. There are a few moments in the beginning when the actors expose their environment as being fake in a wonderful Six Characters in Search of an Author kind of way, but this quickly disapates as we get wrapped into a convoluted story of early 20th century mathematicians Srinivasa Ramanujan and G.H. Hardy and the modern day professor who's obsessed with them. The main problem with the show is that we get the math and the theory behind it but none of the passion that drives these characters.

A lack of passion is also oddly present in Ivo Van Hove's Teorema, a play that's supposed to be about the fluidity of sexuality -- people who are seduced from their unexamined lives to explore their bodies, and by doing so, reconnect with their inner core. Hove directs with such apathy that it's hard to feel anything. There's none of the electricity that coursed through his viscerally brilliant production of Hedda Gabler years back at the New York Theater Workshop. The best moments of Teorema come when the actors are allowed to go a little wild on the massive stage (in a warehouse on Governor's Island) -- thrashing about and embracing chaos that peaks with an artfully choreographed, near-destruction of the set. There are also a number of isolated striking visual moments, but these are not enough to bring the show together.

The same could be said for an evening of Edgard Varese music at Alice Tully Hall. While the recently renovated space is one of the best venues to see chamber music, not even this idyllic setting can quell the restlessness that sets in after listening to an evening of Varese's pieces. Individual phrases -- often sung by soprano Anu Komi -- have a chilling resonance, and Claire Chase's solo flute performance was a joy to hear, but it just wasn't enough to sustain an evening.

The Ice Factory Festival has a similar problem in the pair of shows I saw. Lenora Champagne's Staying Afloat is a sort of apocalyptic one-act about two women and a talking polar bear trapped on a melting ice floe, who are forced to re-examine their lives. It has the makings of aWaiting for Godot-like existential story but fails to engage on an emotional level. The bear often goes off on philosophical rants, and it's hard to feel that the characters are more than lines of dialogue on a page. The set of inflated, colored garbage bags is inventive and effectively evokes the isolation and longing that the play often falls short of expressing. The other show, Samuel Buggeln's quasi-modern adaptation of The Misanthrope is cleverly titled Hater, implying that the show would transform Moliere's observations of 17th century France for a modern audience. Instead, the show proves unwilling or unable to define it's surroundings, switching from a period comedy to a modern fashion show at the drop of a hat. So much of the magic of Moliere is the way he uses language. Buggeln's dialogue is no match, though one phrase he penned for his misanthrope describes the show pretty accurately: "Bad writing is weird."

The Flaming Lips at Summerstage were also pretty weird on Monday night. There's no denying they put on a great live show, but it could have used more structure. As each song spewed confetti like it was the last, the spectacle began to feel oddly anti-climactic. Wayne Coyne sure knows how to rouse an audience, and his crowd-pleasing entrance (walking inside a huge see-through plastic ball across the sea of people) was a highlight of the show, as was his satiric "Yeah Yeah Yeah Song", but something was missing. I was pretty disappointed they didn't play their Dark Side of the Moon album -- can you imagine the potential for psychedelic visuals? -- or even a couple songs from it. Don't they realize it could have been a highlight of the summer?

The National's show at Celebrate Brooklyn on Tuesday night was pretty close to perfect. They opened with the somber anthem "Runaway" from their new album High Violet, and continued to play the rest of the album minus a couple songs along with a handful from both Alligator and Boxer. It was great to hear the older Alligator songs especially the super-charged "Abel" with it's screaming chorus that shows off the power of Matt Berninger's pipes and orchestral beauty of "Geese of Beverly Road". The National aren't a showy band and don't indulge in long jams, allowing them to squeeze nearly two dozen songs into 100 minutes onstage. They bring a classical precision to crafting pop songs that's deceptively simple and immensely pleasing.