New York

John Jesurun

The Performing Garage

John Jesurun is the latest ambitious artist to take on the challenge of visual theater, and, potentially, one of the most original of the new voices. The requisite “art” background comes from a Yale M.F.A. in sculpture; Jesurun also has television experience (he was assistant to the producer on The Dick Cavett Show), and a strong interest in rock ’n’ roll makes him typical of a young media-scavenging generation. Last year, his first theater work appeared in the form of a continuing live serial. Chang in a Void Moon combined cinema-derived techniques (jump cuts, short scenes, a continued-next-week format, flashes back and forward, and special effects) with complicated plots, ensemble performing, exotic characters, and dialogue in several languages. Churned out each week, and minimally staged in the Pyramid Cocktail Lounge’s funky cabaret showroom, Chang was witty, inventive, adventurous, and truly surprising, with an intellectual-soap-opera esprit of its own which made you forget the textual echoes of Harold Pinter and the spatially disorienting staging allusions to the work of Richard Foreman (another would-be cineast turned theater director).

Number Minus One, Parts 1 & 2 both confirms Jesurun’s vocabulary and extends it, with mixed results. At this point, his ideas outstrip his ability to theatricalize them. Growing pains aside, however, Number Minus One exhibits a coherent, thoughtful approach to a genre in danger of becoming a mannerist joke. Its central focus is language. In Part 1, delegates to an unspecified United Nations committee sit in folding chairs around a “set” consisting of a white trapezoid painted on the floor. This forms a “screen” on which a film of a swimming pool is continuously projected. The rapid-fire, non sequitur–filled, bureaucratically bloated dialogue gives little hint of a narrative for the work—several topics are picked up and dropped in a multivoice cacophony—but a few “characters” gradually emerge from the welter of babble-speak: a chairman and his secretary, who guard the rules and act out desperate love scenes; a delegate who hysterically corrects, objects, and otherwise hectors the others; and an impassive “American” delegate taking notes while standing waist deep in a stage trapdoor. Three mini-episodes offer the only narrative nuggets to enliven the static, leaden proceedings: the secretary spins out a humorous/tragic tale about two gay de-fusers of nuclear bombs; the commission’s session is interrupted by the chairman’s murder/suicide; and for a finale, the secretary delivers her “report”—which turns out to be a lip-sync routine to the Ronettes’ song “Walking in the Rain.”

Part 2 continues the static setting with only minor changes: the performers now sit in padded office swivel chairs, and a black X cuts the white quadrilateral. The imaginary scene is now a B-17 bomber on a mission over the Rhine during World War II, and although the action is similar to that of Part 1—just choppy, rapid-fire dialogue—here the text is profane and racist, with lots of cracks about Kraut-killing, bombing opera houses, and other, typically combat-type obscenities. In rock-music-filled gaps between chunks of this dialogue, the plane’s “gunners” fire away at imaginary attackers with childlike intensity.

The two parts are linked by both their visual similarities and their themes, but their import remains sketchy and labored. Transferred to the open space of this theater, more demanding than a club environment, Jesurun’s minimalist, resolutely antipsychological dramatic behaviorism wilts. The conceptualism of his work is underlined at the expense of its playfulness. But Number Minus One does exhibit an ambition to move beyond delightful parody to more meaty matters, and that is in the best tradition of contemporary visual theater. When Jesurun’s technique catches up with his vision, his numbers will add up to more impressive totals.

John Howell