Monday, January 23, 2017

Review: Everyone's a Critic

By Michael Block 

We all strive to write the next great American play. But what is the great American play exactly? Ask ten different people and you'll receive ten different answers. The Great American Drama, created by Connor Sampson and presented by The New York Neo-Futurists, Drama, christening  the brand new Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre, sets out to create this great play after polling a plethora of people, both civilians and theater artists alike. What is presented is ambitious to say the least. Have you ever seen the Saturday Night Live sketch with the high school kids putting on a show? The Great American Drama is the real life version. Only with a little more substance.
Four ensemble members of the Neo-Futurists, along with the live music from Lijie, take the stage to give the audience what they want, what they really, really want. To expose the difficulties of pleasing the masses, Connor Sampson and co offer vignettes from the requests projected on the back wall. And they range from magic to "great" acting to Hamilton. And they'll do all they can to provide! That is as long as they won't be arrested or sued. On the surface, The Great American Drama looks messy but the inherently thrown together feel is overcome with passion and heart. In a piece where everyone's a critic, The Great American Drama literally allows you to vote if the show was successful or not via text at the conclusion of the show. The Great American Drama is anything but conventional. It's bound to be polarizing for the risks it takes. It's experimental simply for the fact that it is a big old experiment. And its payoff will be personal. The thesis of discovering what makes a show, and America, great is truly an impossible feat to find a solution. Audiences, and Americans, want everything, but different everythings, so they try to provide everything to prove their point. But even before the night begins, you know what the outcome will be. Even the unpredictability is a bit predictable.
photo by Hunter Canning
It’s likely the version of The Great American Drama that I witnessed will be different than the version another audience will see. There are clear beats that Sampson and the company explore in the structure. Yet there is something unfinished about the product. Co-directors Sampson and Greg Taubman needed to figure out a way to tighten each moment so any flaw or flub that arose felt deliberate. Sure, the audience is along for the ride but when you feel uncomfortable for the performers, you’re taken out of the moment. Once polished, the joy and excitement that Sampson and Taubman infused will break through. And there is a ton of fun to be had. The immersive elements allow the piece to have the communal feel they long for. But having a backup plan should a rogue audience member become frightened off by the unknown is necessary. With virtually a blank space to work off of, it was the quartet, a few chairs, and the projections from Ross Jernigan. In an ideal world, the projections would fill the giant scrim a bit more but the design itself, from colors to font to borders, was on point. It had a modern feel while still maintaining a classic, presentational essence. Again, in the world of tightness, the lighting from Justin Cornell could have been just that. The Great American Drama didn’t long for anything too crazy, just a bit more specificity.
It’s evident that The Great American Drama is a work of passion. The performers serve as writers but it’s Connor Sampson who stands out the most. Sampson bears his soul, shedding all fears for an extreme amount of honesty and vulnerability. Sampson’s vivacity is slightly subdued but it’s charming. When he does break free and light up, The Great American Drama comes to life. The remainder of the merry band of performers, Daniel McCoy, Katy-May Hudson, and Nicole Hill, do more than fill a niche. Their menu of talents is giant.
The Great American Drama is unlike anything you’ve seen before. And yet it’s exactly like everything you’ve seen before. It’s an ambitious undertaking that I’m certain, by the final performance, will find it’s footing. There’s an exciting exploration that draws you in but as a final product, it’s not quite there. Yet.