Bad-history plays are a thing now. By “bad” I don’t mean poorly researched, but ones incongruously reframed for comic or deconstructive effect (Drunk History, but arty). Out with period fidelity and realism (itself a fiction), in with hip-hop Founding Fathers or, in Men on Boats, a 10-man expeditionary team played by women. (In a similar vein, Lucas Hnath went emo on young Isaac Newton and Little Lord lampooned colonial pageantry in Pocahontas and/or America). To recount the perilous 1869 Powell ride down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, playwright Jaclyn Backhaus gender-flips her hardy crew and asks director Will Davis to stage the impossible: vessels barreling over waterfalls and hairsbreadth escapes from drowning. Silly? Sure. Thrilling? Oh, yes.
Davis and his actors convey the epic, arduous journey through rigorously choreographed gestures and movement, accompanied by Backhaus's poetic, terse script (Sample exchange: “Swell. Swell. Rocks?” “Almost through.” “And hold. Hold keep left.”) Actors suspend kid-size boat frames at waist level, as our intrepid explorers face down deadly currents and protect their provisions. Although Backhaus’s sly inventory of male weakness (empty swagger, imperialist land-lust, concealed cowardice, self-mythologizing) can grow repetitious after an hour or so, the cast is a dream team of experimental pros and fresh faces, mining the pathos and genuine heroism of the story.
Originally presented by the path-blazing Clubbed Thumb last summer and now co-produced by it and Playwrights Horizons, the return engagement of Men on Boats has simply the best acting ensemble Off Broadway right now: Hannah Cabell, Danielle Davenport, Danaya Esperanza, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Birgit Huppuch, Layla Khoshnoudi, Kelly McAndrew, Kristen Sieh, Jocelyn Bioh, Elizabeth Kenny. Learn the names; they will be remembered for generations to come.—David Cote
Playwrights Horizons (Off Broadway). By Jaclyn Backhaus. Directed by Will Davis. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission. Through Aug 14. Click here for full venue and ticket information.