THE BLOG
09/18/2015 05:38 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2016

First Nighter: MJ Kaufman's Imposing 'How to Live on Earth,' Michael Laurence's Bed-Ridden 'Hamlet in Bed,' Yvan Greenberg/Laboratory Theater's Disposable 'Genet Porno'

Give playwright MJ Kaufman and director Adrienne Campbell-Holt abundant credit for writing a compact and understanding study of isolation in How to Live on Earth, at HERE.

On Amy Rubin's sleek set, enhanced by Lianne Arnold's projections, Kaufman imagines four candidates for a space trip from which those chosen understand they'll never return to this planet. The applicants are Omar (Genesis Oliver), Aggie (Molly Carden), Eleanor (Amanda Workman) and Bill (Charles Socarides) and each has a reason for wanting -- quite acutely in most of the cases -- to join the unprecedented crusade into the universe.

Each of them also has a family member or romantic partner at best uncomfortable with the mere idea of such a loss. They're played by Adam Harrington as Aggie's father, Robert and Omar's partner, Rick and by Lynne Lipton as Bill's mother Carol as well as by Socarides as Eleanor's new boyfriend/poet Russ and Oliver as Bill's brother. Don.

Ostensibly. How to Live on Earth is a sincere imagining of how such a not unlikely development would play out. Kaufman doesn't present happy endings to any of the situations, thereby implying that relationship losses endured in similar future conditions could be just about insurmountable emotionally.

Aggie, for instance, never believes that her Dad approves of anything she sees herself doing. He's certainly not eager to sign off on this endeavor. She also has a problem in an affair she coincidentally begins with Don. Carol is unable to mourn Bill because he's still living, although she's clearly grieving. As Kaufman has it, none of those left behind truly understands how the choice to leave them behind could be made.

So that's Kaufman's tale on the surface. Yet, something else is going on. Every once in a while, Omar, Aggie, Eleanor and Bill lose touch with whomever they're conversing. Instead, they begin reaching momentarily toward the skies in a gesture of distracted longing. They quickly regain their poise, but still the change lingers.

Eventually, the lifted arm comes to stand for something else -- as does Kaufman's cunning tale in its entirety. He's writing a metaphor for personal alienation. He's writing about people who are never comfortable with their lives but instead long for being somewhere else, for being anywhere else, for being somewhere they haven't articulated to themselves and possibly can't articulate to themselves.

Not only has Kaufman come on something you might say has a strong affinity with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he has a work being played extremely well by the company, under Campbell-Holt's meticulously clean direction.

In the series of relatively short scenes during which Omar, Aggie, Eleanor and Bill apply for the program and are either accepted, rejected or are accepted but opt out, the actors playing them and/or their various significant others are flawless. The relentless desire in the eyes of those wanting to take the infinite trip, and the unbanked hurt in the eyes of those left behind is unmissable. For one, Lipton's performance as the aggrieved mother, who early on thinks she might be able to dissuade her son but ultimately turns bereft is eventually all but unbearably moving to watch.

Kaufman's recognizing profound existential sadness and the effect it has on those around them is deeply perceptive and utterly compelling. Perhaps needless to say, he offers no answers, undoubtedly because he realizes there are none. He's to be thanked for taking the time to notice so compassionately.
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When it comes to theater, is there anything more tedious than a play in which actors talk about acting on the assumption that anyone who isn't an actor would actually care. Sure, some things work -- A Chorus Line, for one. You'll think of a few others but not many.

One that unfortunately doesn't connect is Hamlet in Bed, now at the Rattlestick. In it, playwright-actor Michael Laurence (has he chosen his surname to conjure thoughts of Olivier?) seemingly gets autobiographical about wanting to appear in the Shakespeare classic so as to deal with personal mother issues.

Playing a character named Michael, he arrives confiding that he's looking to find a surrogate mother and thinks he can find her by grappling with the Bard's most famous mother in a production that -- since he regards the bedroom scene as the crucial Hamlet sequence -- will feature only lots of beds for the set.

Through a couple of coincidences, he finds long-retired actress Anna (Annette O'Toole, doing quite well under the circumstances). Coming to believe she may well be the mother who gave him up at birth (don't ask how he lands on this conviction), Michael starts rehearsals with her, intending ultimately for the two of them to reconcile as bona fide mother and son.

The high point, so to speak, of Hamlet in Bed is the playing of Shakespeare's multi-wattage act-three-scene-four mother-son confrontation. During it, Laurence isn't particularly adept, but perhaps that's not his purpose. Lisa Peterson directs what is actually a Rattlestick Playwrights Theater offering, although it gives the appearance of having "vanity production" written all over it.
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Yvan Greenberg has honed a deliberate saunter to emphasize the off-hand manner in which he mostly tosses off the Yvan Greenberg/Laboratory Theater Genet Porno at HERE. We're first treated to the ultra-casual amble when he enters from the wings with microphone and fully-frontally naked. Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they'll be no rating of his appearance in this review.

After putting on trousers and a shirt, smoking a cigarette and taking a McDonald's break as further proof of his devil-may-care attitude, playwright-actor-choreographer-sound designer-video projection designer-scenic creator Greenberg proceeds -- in what I think is best described as remorseless juvenilia -- to explain that the character he's assuming is a busy pornographer about to shoot some new scenes.

Out come, in their turn, Divine (tall, blond-wigged Oleg Dubson) and then Darling Daintyfoot (Joe Joseph, looking less like the late Candy Darling than Dubson does) to perform sex scenes eventually joined by Greenberg as Damon Dogg and/or Our Lady of the Flowers. (Jean Genet is cribbed from at times.) Props including dildos of various sizes figure in, as does a squirt bottle filled with a white liquid.

Because as part of a fatigued closing sequence, Damon Dogg beats himself with a plastic strip, it could be said that Genet Porno runs the gamut from fellatio to flagellation, but, believe you me, it's an uninteresting gamut. Is Greenberg satirizing dirty videos in his way? If so, he's not doing it well.