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First Nighter: "The Events" Proves Less Than Riveting

02/12/2015 07:02 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

In the program for The Events, now at the New York Theatre Workshop, is a note about the production's provenance that goes in part:

"In the fall of 2011 playwright David Greig and Actors Touring Company (ATC) Artistic Director Ramin Gray visited Norway spurred by Anders Breivik's attack on public buildings in Oslo and massacre of 77 young people at a youth camp on Utoya Island. During this visit they met a young female vicar who ran a community choir. This meeting inspired both the character whose story was to be told and the central role of the choir in The Events."

I can only say it's a good thing that couple of explanatory sentences is there, albeit in tiny type. Otherwise, I'm afraid I'm might not have had much idea of what went on in front of me for about 90 minutes. That's despite the work's arriving here after nailing down Edinburgh Fringe Festival firsts and the like.

As the two-hander-plus-choir piece unfolded, I might have figured out by myself that I was watching a conflicted cleric named Claire (Neve McIntosh). The collar tipped me to that as well as the many anguished facial and body expressions. I might have concluded that something was transpiring that had to do with shamanistic rituals and others along those lines as part of a healing process. I might even have inferred that a prisoner (Clifford Samuel, filling other demands at various times) had been incarcerated for committing an unspeakable crime.

More than that I'm not certain I would have gotten. Playwright Greig and director Ramin were obviously outraged and saddened by the 2011 events and moved to do something to help as many people as possible recover from a disaster the reasons for which no one might ever understand. But they've gone about their chosen task abstrusely. At least, their piece is difficult to plumb for audiences bringing little background information to the proceedings -- unlike perhaps those more aware of the Norway debacle.

The Events unfolds on Chloe Lamford's sparse set. At the back are low bleachers where the choir sits when not required elsewhere. (The choir involved changes every performance, according to where The Events is temporarily situated and to what choirs are available and willing.)

The overall suggestion is that those on stage and in the audience are in a rehearsal hall. Magnus Gilljam is at an upright piano placed just stage left of center for most of the activity, playing and conducting the singers. Against the stage right wall twenty-plus stable chairs sit. Next to them are tables, one of which has a coffee urn on it and one at which someone never identified sits apparently following the script.

Also available is a mop. It's necessary because at several times during the goings-on, either Claire or the Man, playing whoever he is at that moment, spills some liquid or other or spits up as a result of who knows what. There's one instance where the Man, lying prone on top of the piano spews a liquid that, if I have this right, may contain poison. Then he immediately jumps down to kiss Claire full on the mouth. It's distasteful, and to what purpose?

The inclusion of the once-only chorus has its pluses and minuses. The night I was there, The Stop Shopping Choir had been tapped -- but surely not outfitted by the producers. (Of all ages, the 14 women and 7 men wore street clothes definitely intended for downscale streets.)

All choirs participating sing gospel and folk items, some of which are by John Browne. The selections have their appeal, and the Stop Shoppers, who undoubtedly had been drilling on their own for a while, delivered them well, harmonies especially.

The downside is that The Events dialogue is also distributed to choir members. Since they aren't necessarily actors, problems accrue. Gray may not, of course, want the day laborers to act. Whatever, the result is that supposedly asking questions of their own devising, they read flatly from binders. (That's to say the Stop Shopping Choir members recited flatly. Perhaps other choirs are gloriously animated.) Towards the denouement there's a choral reading that cast the same soporific spell when I was in attendance.

A notice on blue paper from Gray that's slipped into the program talks about theater being a community requirement in ancient Greece. He and Greig hope that this aspect carries over to their enterprise. Does it? They're right about the positive effects of community-spurred get-togethers at times like Norway's horror or Columbine or Sandy Hook or name-the-tragedy. Nevertheless, is a diffuse project like The Events the correct balm?

I was sitting in the fourth row and saw only three people exit before the finale in which the Stop Shopping Choir was directed to come downstage and sing as if they were, I think, the murdered children. I never turned around to see if anyone behind me left. It may be that none had.

I was definitely aware that everyone in the auditorium remained attentive, but did they feel as if they'd become part of a community, as Greig and Ramin wish. I don't know. I know that when The Events was over, I didn't stick around to find out.