Jerry Lieblich has a knack for writing things you think you might have heard before. His ear is uncannily precise: In his superb Ghost Stories (2015), Lieblich seemed to be recalling nightmares that we were only just then remembering. This insinuating quality comes from his razor-keen flair for pastiche. In his most recent effort, though, it turns out that gift can cut two ways. Lieblich's new work is a postmodern comedy called Your Hair Looked Great, and this time, the writer parrots TED Talks, imitating those doggedly, earnestly “informative” speeches by nailing every telling detail, down to bullet points. The trouble lies in the fact that—as clever as the satire is—he's making us sit through the damn things.
On a grey stage in front of grey curtains (Brittany Vasta designed the limbo-like set), a man (Merlin Whitehawk) delivers a long, vacuous lecture. “What's success?” he asks; “It's setting goals and achieving them,” he answers, or rather non-answers, endlessly. After he finishes, a gimlet-eyed narrator (ferocious Emma Meltzer) comments from the wings. “He could do anything,” she sneers, “But this was what he was doing.”
Great is a fugue on emptiness, a theme-and-variations composition on the meaninglessness of our quest for success. Scenes are thematically (not logically) connected: The portmanteau structure allows for another faux-TED Talk—it equates Joseph Campbell's “hero's journey” to the buzz a woman (Ryann Weir) gets from consumer goods—and there's a clever interlude between Achilles (Alex Hanna) and his mother Thetis (Janice Amaya), in which the world's most accomplished warrior develops doubts. The fiercest sequence brings all five actors together for a break-room conversation that's a scramble of clichés (“Have you ever seen a week like this?”) and an aria by Meltzer about closet reorganization.
Lieblich and director Stefanie Abel Horowitz (together they form the company Tiny Little Band, which produced Great and Ghost Stories) clearly have tart notes to share about our ability to talk while meaning nothing, our 10-easy-steps-to-happiness paradigm, ersatz uplift and shallow thinking. There's quite a bit of extremely good writing, and as a production, Great is a lovely object: beautifully performed, smartly scored by ambient composer Trevor New and well staged. But all this tailor-made emptiness, strung together like bullet points on a slide, takes an experiential toll. The guy in front of me was sending texts. The people behind me started up a conversation. It mimics vacancy so perfectly it can stun the audience into insensibility. Is that success? Not exactly.
Abrons Arts Center (Off-Off Broadway). By Jerry Lieblich. Directed by Stefanie Abel Horowitz. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission. Through February 25. Click here for full venue and ticket information.
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