Monday, May 7, 2018

Review: Women on the Verge of Breaking Down the Usual Narrative

By Ed Malin

Renowned playwright Mario Fratti returns to Theater for the New City with The Politics of Gender, a program of two new one-act plays.mBoth plays investigate how privileged men set out to dominate women.  Well, I suppose they are welcome to try.
The first play is Jennifer and Cassie, directed by Joan Kane.  This is an old-fashioned murder story, complete with smoky trumpet music (composed, performed and recorded  by Andy Evan Cohen) and a fedora-wearing, constantly smoking detective (Bryan James Hamilton).  Although a landlord (Linus Gelber) has been killed and we see a red silhouette on the ground, Fratti puts us off the trail of the murderess by offering us three femmes fatales.  Jennifer (Taylor Graves) and Cassie (Ivette Dumeng) are roommates and women in love. Their deceased landlord, denied access to certain romantic portals by his wife, sometimes asked his tenants to allow him to bring his lover to their apartment, where they would leave him to his own devices.  All understandable in some way, yes no?  Unfortunately, a kitchen device was used to stab the landlord several times.  Why would the unhappy wife tolerate this lover, and perhaps others before?  Who snapped?  Jennifer and Cassie are portrayed with great purity but also with jealousy and foibles that they sometimes can’t conceal.  They have many feminine graces, including theater training (not to be confused with histrionics) and portrait sketching (not to be confused with sketch comedy).   The investigation, which goes back and forward in time, omits nothing.  Perhaps you, as the detective could not, can reframe this cleverly nuanced play in terms of male privilege, the only thing that would make a man dare to ask for such things.  Joan Kane directs her eager cast with great sensitivity to all of the feelings that are always so close to bubbling up from the surface.
photo by Bruce Kraemer
The second play is the equally compelling Brooklyn, (Cain's Adventure), directed by Janet Bentley.  Who is the Biblical Cain if not the first refugee?  However, although that first Cain walked the Earth with a mark on his head which made people reject him, some men forget their tenuous position and come to harm.  We begin with a monologue by Cain (Jovani Zambrano)—in a residual immigrant intonation—about his many, many experiences with women.  The child of a promiscuous woman, Cain travels widely and sees more of the same frustrating hedonistic behavior among women his own age.  He has been married and divorced, and is raising his children on his own in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  (Yes, Cain is Jewish and states he lives in a safe community surrounded by his “brothers”, but otherwise is vague about his religious affiliation; he has been and still is a strikingly lustful single man.) All the time, he longs for an ideal, pure woman who will make everything all right.  He meets Elena (Ivette Dumeng), a graceful, shy and wealthy Manhattan lawyer.  Ivette is great in this play, too.  They court slowly, and when after the sixth date they become romantically involved, Cain concludes he can use his sexual prowess to manipulate Elena.  He gradually convinces her to sell her apartment and move to a new place in Brooklyn with him.  Although she loves and to a large extent obeys him, she is overwhelmed by her new surroundings.  Cain then threatens to step out on her unless she accompanies him to some shady places and degrades herself for his benefit.  He appears to praise her as he throws around some old Yiddish patriarchal chestnuts such as “A fault! The bride is too beautiful!” (a khisorn, az die kallah is tzu sheyn)  Nevertheless, Cain, who is determined to see female weakness, decides that his wife is at heart a stupid person.  Her love, and her willingness to give him so much, add toxicity to his masculinity.  Do you think he is going to get away with abusing such an amazing person?  If you do, you don’t know Mario Fratti.  (The author spent years lecturing on Dante, so I think it’s reasonable to expect punishment for sins.)  A play with such long monologues depends on fine direction, which is abundantly on offer from Janet Bentley.  Forget the symbolism; I was surprised by the ending and am grateful for the sincere performances.
We don’t see a lot about Elena’s friends and her grown daughter and other parts of her life apart from Cain.  This looks like patriarchal reduction, but, what I think we are really focusing on is how men conspire to belittle women.  We do know that Cain’s realtor and lawyer and other comrades in the neighborhood all have the same expectations of Jewish women, and are ready to make the odds against them nearly insurmountable.   Whether or not this was their reality in past centuries, even under the threat of abuse from powerful white people, this is a great opportunity to wake up and smell the fresh Brooklyn air. The title points us to the politics of it all.  Good thing there are two female directors ready to take on this production.
The sets by Marc Marcante and Lytza Colon literally give us fabulous views of the New York skyline.  There is also a stark whiteness to the interiors which invites the complexities of human emotion to come out from hiding.  Catherine Fisher costumes the ensemble for this subtle battle of the sexes, from demure ladies to the playboy landlord to underground swingers.  Sound design is by the Roly Polys (Andy Evan Cohen and Janet Bentley). Elena at one point gives a piano performance for Cain, which is Bentley's composition Neko Kumogata recorded  by Cohen.   Alex Bartenieff’s lighting design is like a microscope for a murder investigation.