Jordan Harrison’s new play The Amateurs, playing at Vineyard Theatre until March 29, puts one in the mind of roads less travelled (and whether they’re less travelled for a reason). For me, the overall effect of the play was similar to the moment when, near the end of the first leg of a lengthy road trip, when you’ve finally settled in to the rhythm of the road despite the absence of any meaningful scenery to take in, the GPS unit suddenly and for no apparent reason says, “Recalculating.” Then it instructs you to take the next exit and navigates you through a series of indistinct townships on a two-lane boulevard of some kind until, about thirty miles later, it leads you back onto the freeway.
In Harrison’s play, the freeway is equivalent to the central plot at hand, in which a team of not-particularly-talented amateur actors make their not-so-merry way through a black-plague stricken landscape, hoping to perfect their latest morality play (titled “Noah’s Flood”) by the time they reach the Duke’s land, where they plan to debut it. Opening with a short (intentionally mediocrely performed) crude demo of what these morality plays tended to sound like – masked, in verse, flat, declarative, drama-free – the audience is then taken along on the journey of the troop, getting to know each of the players, who speak (when outside of the morality play text) in a po-mo-contemporary manner, presumably because it’s funnier than if they actually sounded period-specific. (There are jokes. And swearing. Often the swearing contributes to the joke. This device doesn’t feel cheap exactly, just…not not cheap.) The actual period that is being set against these anachronistically linguistic mannerisms is – important for later on – the 14th century.
It’s a just-fine freeway of a play, one that you feel okay about driving down, but also one that doesn’t inspire too much of anything on an emotional, dramatic, or intellectual level. It’s sometimes funny, and maybe that’s enough? But just as this sense of settling with the given circumstance and performance aesthetic has taken place, at a sort of promising mid-point in which it appears that death has suddenly appeared as a character and is about to claim the life of one of the players who is sick with the plague – we arrive at our recalculation moment.
The actor Michael Cyril Creighton, who we’ve already seen playing a rather dopy scenic builder and occasional performer for the theatrical troop named Gregory, interrupts the scene mid-action, entering in contemporary clothes, and stating rather plainly, “Hi. I’m the playwright.” Further muddling things is that he, of course, isn’t the playwright, which he also acknowledges, because we’ve already seen him playing Gregory in the previous context. So, I guess, we have Michael Cyril Creighton playing Jordan Harrison as Michael Cyril Creighton would, but written by Jordan Harrison, so it’s how Jordan Harrison would imagine Michael Cyril Creighton would play him if given the chance, which…he is given. At any rate – a distancing effect.
This act – recalculation, re-calibration, detour – is risky. It lasts a while; at least twenty minutes out of a fairly tight ninety on the whole. It’s risky because it throws us out of rhythm, but more so because it doesn’t actually function as much more than a lengthy footnote to the action. It’s a context note, performed. The paradox, which I’ve wrestled with since seeing The Amateurs, is that if you remove the context note, the rest of the play – objectively – doesn’t work. Once one becomes aware of Harrison’s intentions with the play, it becomes apparent that without this detour, we would never have arrived where he wants us to end up. So, to some extent, the detour is justified, because it does change the landscape, or at least the end point. On the other hand, the detour itself isn’t particularly dramatic or theatrically interesting. It feels more like a demo on the emergence of character between the 14th and 17th century (Harrison is particularly interested in a moment he’s discovered in the actual text of “Noah’s Flood” in which Noah’s wife refuses to board the ark, leading to various fisticuffs). He argues – and so the play must also argue, now that Harrison has put himself/not himself on stage – that perhaps this moment was not just comic relief for a bored-stiff audience in the 14th century, but instead a spark of identity, an emergence of character in a character-free (at the time) art form.
Whether this is true or not (and it seems more likely to be not), it doesn’t change in any meaningful way the journey up to this point. The first act, after all, was told to us in such a contemporary way that whatever this revelation might act upon is negated by the fact that what we’ve experienced was all character – sort of archetypical funny/cute contemporary playwright-created character at that. The director Oliver Butler has chosen to push this style instead of hiding it, which feels right for Acts I and III, but also undermines Harrison’s intrusion, in that there’s nothing in the aesthetic that helps point at this moment that Harrison is so interested in highlighting.
Then the detour is over and we’re back on the freeway. The fourth wall goes back up. The GPS seems to be taking us in a straight direction again, except now, we know what the end is. This creates a certain new tension in the structure of the play, but doesn’t necessarily add to the dynamism or dramatic capabilities of the story, which is still only half-over at the time we rejoin it. Nothing has changed in the world of the players, but we watch them differently – possibly impatiently, because, well, nothing for them has changed.
And yes. The moment when Quincy Tyler Bernstein (who is great), as Noah’s Wife, says “No” is a great moment. It’s a moment that we wouldn’t have been able to understand without the act of context, but now, because we’re waiting for it, there’s a distinctive payoff. It’s exciting. But it also only lasts about five minutes. Just doing the basic math, there’s about twenty minutes in the middle (the detour part) that aren’t dramatically interesting, and there’s about fifty-five minutes that basically serve as a comic set-up that allow for this final (relatively satisfying) moment to exist.
Do ends justify means? What The Amateurs is after (an exploration of identity and character set amidst the apocalyptic landscape of a plague-stricken land) is admirable and actually rather rigorous, and it’s difficult to argue against any of the choices the play makes individually. But when viewed as a whole – despite the route being an intriguingly irregular one, despite that the fact that we did make it to a destination in the end – it’s hard to decide whether this particular trip needed to be taken in the first place.
The Amateurs runs to March 29, 2018. More production info can be found here.