New York

Creation Production Company

Manhattan Theater Club

The givens are these: two characters, a man and a woman, with no proper names; subject matter culled from a cross-cultural laundry list; and a dramaturgical methodology that depends on mixed-media technology and consists of collaged vignettes separated by blackouts. Sound familiar? These are the essential ingredients of the post-Modern performance, a theatrical exercise built around a handful of by now familiar formalisms and a thesis which is no less vehemently terroristic for being the conventional wisdom of the day. The agenda might besummarized thusly: no one story is “the story,” experience is inextricably mediated by cultural and biological preconditions and claims to authenticity are spurious—hopelessly degraded by our unavoidable immersion in the image stew.

In the hands of the likes of Sam Shepard, this style of theater offers another way to look at often inarticulate behavior. When the formal mechanisms are emphasized, however, as in the work of the Creation Production Company, the spotlight turns on the exploration of intellectual premises. The resulting experience has more to do with thinking than with looking. As an avatar of its type, Cities Out of Print was exemplary, presenting its concepts in a cogent, well-staged performance essay. But it also inadvertently raised questions about its own methods, pointing to an incipient crisis: in short, are the returns from its ideological agenda actually diminishing its dramatic payoff?

The arena for Cities was a stage arrayed with objects that included a downsized billboard of a highway tracking through empty desert, a living/eating area, a glass exhibit case full of “evidence,” and the major portion of an actual wrecked car. “He” (Matthew Maguire) and “She” (Susan Mosakowski, who wrote and directed Cities) ricocheted around this junked-up landscape of lower-middle-class detritus, slipping in and out of character(s) and declaiming lines alluding to the lives—and deaths—of celebrity car-crash victims (Isadora Duncan, James Dean, Princess Grace, Albert Camus, Jayne Mansfield, Jackson Pollock). This dialogue was punctuated with inserts from films (They Drive by Night, Taxi Driver, Blue Velvet); J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash; and To a Violent Grave: An Oral Biography of Jackson Pollock, all of which dealt with well-known automotive situations.

Generally, the two characters orated at each other rather thangenerating any relationship; just as often, they addressed themselves and/or the audience in abstracted soliloquies. Cities flirted with Shepardian notions of obsessional monologue and pop-culture commentary but the minute any context—any fix on character or any story line—threatened to take hold, the performance sped off in yet another direction.

The piece ran on automatic pilot, as if the only alternative to driving straight down the narrative interstate were to take every possible digressive side road, a travel plan that has its charms if you don’t care where you’re going. While one might argue that the experience of this aimlessness validated the work, at an hour’s length the mind nevertheless recoiled from its randomness.

Mere juxtapositions do not always yield resonant relationships; even through-line engines, whether stories, formal structures, and /or pop-culture myths need direction if the vehicle is not simply to spin its wheels. Conceptual premises don’t make performance as an event, something deeper and perhaps less explainable does. More than a series of anecdotes but less than a synthesized meditation, the ambitious Cities was stuck in third gear, cruising an endless highway to an unseen destination.

John Howell