(photo from the Woolly Mammoth production of the play)
One of the toughest roles for an actor to play is the loser. Woody Allen has made a career out of it; Jason Alexander as George in TV’s Seinfeld has done pretty well with it. The problem is that real-life losers tend to whine a lot, and if the imaginary, on-stage loser has a large role in a play an audience is subjected to one heck of a lot of whining. In this case, the loser is the only character in the play and he never shuts up. One might even be driven to turn one’s cell phone back on and start making some calls. It is a tribute to Stanley Rutherford’s play, T. Scott Cunningham’s acting, and Jessica Bauman’s direction that the 78th Street Theatre Lab’s production of The Chinese Art of Placement is as entertaining and even moving as it is.
It is, in fact, very entertaining and very moving. Cunningham’s performance might even be taken as a master class for other actors in how to succeed in such a role. First, it helps to look like an ordinary guy, which Cunningham does. The play makes the point that most people, male and female both, feel extremely ordinary under whatever pose and bravado they manufacture. Most people are about as insecure as Sparky Litman, the character that holds the stage here for a little over an hour. But most people aren’t articulate and honest about it, and most people aren’t very funny when they do their whining. And most people don’t come to any clear sort of understanding about their plight. Cunnigham’s Sparky Litman is funny and does seem to come to a kind of desperate understanding of his existential plight.
Sparky is a recovering poet; in fact, just yesterday he stopped writing poetry and feels much better now, thank you. He is even planning a party for tomorrow night to celebrate. It is, as he describes it, one of those stand-up, wine and cheese and crackers sort of affairs. The evening, he tells the people he invites, will feature entertainment by Tina Turner whose manager or agent or whatever he has called and blurted out an invitation. He works himself up into sort of believing that Ms. Turner will attend. After all, he’s one of her biggest fans. Another highlight of the party will be a visit to the basement where his parents and grandparents are (or aren’t) interred in tasteful urns with incense and candles. These mad plans, and Sparky’s hilarious and oddly touching description of his adventures as a top-secret spy taking a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, take on a kind of strange believability.
But before he can get his party-planning going full steam or get into telling his spy tales he has to get his chair in just the right spot. He uses the ancient art of Feng Shui to accomplish this, and deftly satirizes the tendencies of most folks to seek solace from some kind of intricate belief system, whether religion, politics, or furniture placement. The viewer of any play can only imagine the rehearsal process, the contribution that the director made to an actor’s great or terrible performance, and the energy and process of creation that culminated in that performance. Whatever that process was like here, whatever director Jessica Bauman contributed, the results are intriguing and compelling. A director’s skill is often apparent in the pacing of a piece, and here the actor seems comfortable with the long pause, and equally comfortable with speeding things up to a frantic race against time.
Scenic designer Adam Stockhausen has created a perfectly square raised floor covered over with perfectly square off-gray tiles set in what can best be described as a perfectly square box made of black, semi-translucent scrim material. It is, in fact, the perfect setting for this play.