By MCN Editor

The Little Flower & The LAB

Something really great is happening at the LAByrinth Theater Company in New York.
I ran into LAByrinth about a year ago, on my way to the Bermuda International Film Festival. I had scheduled a few days in NY, which was a balmy 65 degrees for most of my trip, before heading over to the festival.
And then, that Thursday, a freak snow storm. But not just some snow… it was 8 inches of snow all over Manhattan in a matter of hours. The airlines shut down. The slush was thick. And me, without a coat, was looking around for something to do while I waited for a flight that was going to take off.
There was nothing that I wanted to see on Broadway after four shows in three days. And then, I noticed in the paper that Oscar-winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman was in a show at The Public that had a Saturday afternoon show.
The show was Jack Goes Boating. It was still in previews and I was able to grab a seat at the last minute. And as I found out, not only was Hoffman in the show, but it co-starred John Ortiz, one of those actors out there whose face people know, but whose name they forget… and whose performances I seem to always adore, including his turn as Jose Yero in Mann’s Miami Vice, playing Crowe’s cop partner in Scott’s American Gangster, and Juan Abreu in Schnabel’s Before Night Falls. (In other words, he’s a guy who quality directors want to work with, but who has not found a celebrity-making hook yet.)
And what I get, up in The Public’s third floor walk-up theater, is a wonderful little piece of pairs acting, primarily Hoffman & Ortiz as best buddies, a modern dysfunctional Kramden & Norton. Then there was Ortiz and his wife in the show, Daphne Ruben-Vega, whose marriage was constantly challenged by one of her past missteps, always feeling like a real relationship. And finally, Hoffman and Beth Cole, who plays the girl he is interested in and who gently, slowly, relentlessly tries to step up to the challenge. It was funny. It was poignant. And it was real. It was kitchen sink drama with a joint sitting in the ashtray.
But there was also some remarkable sets by David Korins, combined with lighting by Japhy Weideman and sound by David Van Tieghem, creating such abstractions as a city swimming pool while also bringing to life more traditional spaces like the apartment where most of the action takes place.
Before the summer was over, I had missed two more LAByrinth shows… and I wasn’t happy. I decided to buy a LAB Pass so I would at least be aware of what I was missing.
The first show of this year was The View From 151st St, which was also written by Jack Goes Boating playwright Bob Glaudini and directed by the same director, Peter Dubois. This piece was much, much grittier than the earlier piece. The two main locations were The Street and an apartment, where an undercover cop who has taken a bullet to the head lives and tries to recover from the damage. Also trying to recover from his damage is his old army buddy, Ray (played by Andre Royo, best knows as “Bubbles” on The Wire), fighting to be the man he knows he must be.
On the street, actor muMs da Schemer (who also goes by Craig Grant) is the force of nature. Built like an artillery shell in an oversized jacket, every step on the street feels like an effort to plant his footprint on 151st Street as though it was some jacked up Grauman’s Chinese Theater. (We had tickets in the front row of the theater and got too close as Delroy decides to piss all over his enemy. We are pretty sure it was prop urine.)
I found the show powerful, though not quite as compelling as Jack. This show, after the previous one featured a white couple and a Latino couple, was even more multi-racial, seeing past race to class in New York. There were more familiar but name-unknown actors giving mighty performances.
After missing the company’s Unconditional because of a scheduling glitch, we caught up with The Little Flower of East Orange a few weeks ago. This time, it was Hoffman directing a play by Stephen Adly Guirgus. The duo had successes before with Our Lady of 121st Street and Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train.
And once again, it was a show about a multi-racial universe that was not about political correctness, but about the simple truth of what the urban world looks like when you live in it.
At the center of this show is Michael Shannon, another actor whose face and voice would be immediately familiar to most of you, but whose name you probably don’t know. He is the teller of the tale, a writer who is looking back at a pivotal moment of his life and his family’s life… the time his mom ran away from home.
Well, it’s not quite that. She has fallen down stairs and is being treated for her injuries and for an alleged case of amnesia. As the story goes, her family – son and daughter – come to her side and the family drama begins. The issues are raw and utterly familiar. The question, as it is in any examination of a lived life, is how these dysfunctions come to be visited upon this particular family.
As the mother, Ellen Burstyn does remarkable, subtle work. I saw the show in previews and there were some stumbled over lines. But Burstyn’s power, mostly sitting in a bed, emerged in subtle ways throughout. Other standouts, besides Shannon, who underplays the role to perfection, are Elizabeth Canavan – an actress who you won’t know from movies, but probably will soon enough – as The Daughter and the combo of David Zayas and Liza Colón-Zayas as the pair taking turns taking care of this woman… patiently, impatiently, carefully, humanly and with great humor and respect. They almost steal the show. Also, there is a girl named Gillian Jacobs who doesn’t have much to do, but who steals your focus – without trying – every time she steps on the stage. Even in her two roles (most of the actors play more than one role), her energy is really different. She’s one of those people you see on a stage and just go, “hmmmmm.”
The show is also another remarkable piece of design, with panels that are moved into a variety of sets by the actors in plain view. It works. And once again, a great lighting effort by Japhy Weideman. And as in all of these shows, Mimi O’Donnell’s costumes simply find reality… dead on… never showy… always right.
Another strong show.
But what really sticks with me is that LAByrinth and Atlantic, New Group, and others are really delivering a side of theater in New York that is what so many of us fell in love with the theater for in the first place, succeed or fail, show by show.
Each group has its own proclivities and focuses. Atlantic has had the most luck being a starter spot for longer runs or bigger venues, in the spirit of Playwright’s Horizon in the past. New Group, in the shows I have seen there, attracts great actors, but keeps things fairly neat. And LAByrinth brings the edge, the color, the fearlessness about demanding a lot from its audience without being afraid of entertaining us.
Uptown, you do get some shows that are really, really about something, whether it is this season’s August: Osage County or The Seafarer or November or Rock-n-Roll, four tremendous new shows (don’t let November’s comedy distract you from its life lessons). But mostly, you get shows aiming for the widest possible level of interest, as hundreds (or thousands) have to be convinced to buy tickets nightly.
But downtown – and particularly LAByrinth – really feels like where the foundational work is being done. And it’s being done by newcomers and veterans alike… stars and unknowns. When you look at the list of the 117 members of the LAByrinth company, you see a family – often literally – a place of inclusion and ambition and “let’s put on a show in that barn… and blow their asses away!”
It’s a reason to keep loving theater.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon