I tend to like it best when language is used precisely … I get annoyed when I’m trying to say that something is futile and all I can think to say is hopeless. I care about nuance; futile and hopeless may live in the same neighborhood of language, but they’re blocks away from each other, in my mind. The other day I came across someone who used “alas” in place of “luckily” (“I really needed some frozen yogurt and alas! I suddenly saw a Pinkberry.” Whaaaat???). It upset me so much that I had to write to a friend and complain.
So the idea of being hit by a car and losing my power of precise speech (a condition called Aphasia) is as awful, to me, as, say … the star quarterback being told he’ll walk with a limp for the rest of his life. Unthinkable. Devastating.
Which brings us to Night Sky by Susan Yankowitz – directed by Daniella Topol and currently playing at The Rose Nagelberg Theater at Baruch Performing Arts Center.
Anna (Jordan Baker) is a busy lady … she’s an astronomy teacher who ponders the great wonders of the universe on a daily basis; she’s been recognized by her peers for her work, she’s an intellectual. Her signifiacant other, Daniel, (Jim Stanek) is a singer of opera, and her teen-aged daughter Jennifer (Lauren Ashley Carter) is … well, we’ll get to Jenny-Jen-Jennifer later.
Jordan Baker as Anna is wonderful to watch … to tell you the truth I could have sat in her “class” and listened to her talk about the cosmos for the first hour rather than go home with her to whiny Daniel and percolating Jennifer. But of course, how does a playwright illustrate the frustrations and difficulties of impaired communication without first providing a network of people who create a framework within which the affected person communicates? And so, we’re lead into Anna’s personal life.
Anna and Daniel have a lot of passion in their relationship; they emote passionately, they cuddle passionately, they discuss passionately and they fight … well, you get it. When we first see the family dynamic Anna has just gotten home from a long day at work, Dan and Jen have gone ahead and ordered a pizza without her, and she’s left to eat an apple while she tries to concentrate on her paperwork. Daniel wanders off to sing arias, Jennifer moves stage left to recite French conjugation ad nauseum, and this feels like the last family I’d want to spend time with on a Saturday night. When Anna and Daniel start getting into the nitty gritty of their relationship and why each feels it’s so unbalanced, it’s painful to watch, it’s so real. Soon enough their anger drives Anna out into the street and POW … it suddenly all goes wrong.
When Anna wakes up in the hospital we’ve found she’s been hit by a car and the blow has left her with Aphasia. When she speaks she is impossible to understand. ”Gloo, gloo” is the best she can do with “I love you”. However, as her power of speech gets better over the course of the first act those around her continually misunderstand the most obvious clues … but of course they have to be obvious or else we, as the audience, would be completely checked out.
When Daniel goes home to tell Anna’s daughter that she’s going to have to expect the worst, the exchange is cringe-inducing. I’m not 100% sure why the playwright, or the director, felt it was necessary to have Daniel act out (rather than simply explain) Anna’s condition, an example or two would have been fine … but watching him pretend to struggle with speech as he talks like Marlee Matlin and over act his way through example after example (we got it!) is such an embarrassing piece of theatre that I had to look away.
And now I’m going to be harsh, perhaps harsher and more politically incorrect than I’ve ever been. But really … it’s awfully hard to portray a deficit faithfully without coming across as just plain derogatory. While I’m sure many people who suffer from Aphasia talk and act like Anna (after all, the play was written by Ms. Yankowitz at the request of real Aphasia victim Joseph Chaikin …. so she MUST have gotten to know its symptoms and distinctions) when trying to sell it to an audience, it just has to be modulated. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr … who, might I add … was given an Academy Award nomination for this role) said it best in Tropic Thunder:
Kirk Lazarus: Everybody knows you never go full retard.
Tugg Speedman: What do you mean?
Kirk Lazarus: Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, ‘Rain Man,’ look retarded, act retarded, not retarded. [...] You know Tom Hanks, ‘Forrest Gump.’ Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. [...] Peter Sellers, “Being There.” Infantile, yes. Retarded, no. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard. You don’t buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, “I Am Sam.” Remember? Went full retard, went home empty handed…
So maybe what I’d like to request is that if this show is ever done again – don’t go full Apahsia. It’s utterly distracting and does not come across as intended.
The other thing that unnecessarily distracted me was the role of Jen … she was both badly written as well as badly directed. Her range consist of 4 basic activities: skipping, flouncing, trudging or pouting. She’s a caricature of a teen girl outfitted head to toe in some one’s interpretation of Boho chic. She’s given oh-so-eclectic interests that make her appear “cool” while still maintaining the typical scenario of being a bundle of insecurity when it comes to “boys”. She also has a bit of sitcom smart-ass thrown in. She’s written childishly and directed badly, she overacts so much that it set my teeth on edge … she’s a combination of every teenage character you’ve ever seen on anything, and doesn’t do much for the plot except give Anna an excuse to interact with an offspring and have a not-very-funny-moment trying to shop for a dress for her daughter. (Anna’s strange wording and odd inflection is interpreted as a Dutch accent by a saleswoman. Seriously?) The character was also written in the early ’90s and her “coolspeak” hasnt been updated since. By the time Jennifer squeals “Eeeww. Totally vomitatious!!” it was clear her part was written by someone who gets their information about teenagers from other people’s interpretations of teenagers … twenty years ago.
Now, before you go thinking it was all bad … there’s a lot of goodness in Night Sky. Goodness that could have been isolated and reformed into a play that does the affliction justice. There was a better way to illustrate the true meaning of how our communication skills (or our lack of them) define us. A shorter play could have had this theme shine through.
Also, Jordan Baker’s mastery in the second act (again, save for the Marlee Matlin diction) is beautiful. In fact the scenes with Daniel are the best of the show; one moment they’re romantically trying to feel normal again, another moment they’re at odds as Anna simultaneously needs and dismisses Daniel’s help, and another moment they’re fighting as passionately as they did before, with less words but the same ideas. However, ultimately there’s just too much in Night Sky … there’s a random patient who I-am-Sams his way through all his scenes (we already discussed this …) and I’m not sure why he’s there. As a juxtaposition to show us what great progress Anna is making? As a reminder that not all those afflicted with Aphasia can come out of it so well as Anna? As filler between scenes? I’d guess the last … that’s how it came across … but I’m certain that’s not how it was intended. In addition, every scientific buzz word is thrown in as well … Schrodinger’s cat even makes an appearance (or does it?) , and Stephen Hawking of course gets his fair footnote.
All in all, while Jordan Baker is wonderful … and truly transforms herself … Night Sky carries too much method acting and not enough poetic subtlety. In a universe this expansive I’m sure the perfect blend could have been found.
Night Sky runs through June 20th, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00pm; Saturdays at 3:00pm & 8:00pm; and Sundays at 3:00pm at Baruch Performing Arts Center (55 Lexington Avenue).
All tickets range between $25 – $65. There will be a limited number of $25 Student Rush tickets available for each performance. Tickets can be reserved by calling TheaterMania at 212-352-3101 or online at www.NightSkyThePlay.com.