Empathy School/Love Story: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Aaron Landsman's humanism is the primary mover behind his work; there's gentleness and enormous sympathy all through it, whether he's making a participatory installation about civic engagement (City Council Meeting) or writing a tragedy about survivor guilt (Running Away From the One With the Knife). Kindness, though, is not a guarantee of a great theater, and in the past, that sweetness sometimes curdled into dramaturgical inertia. The solution, now that we see it, suddenly seems obvious: Landsman's monologues Empathy School and Love Story are atmospherics rather than plays. We experience the two one-acts as meditations—they're intentionally drifting, static, elliptical, hypnotic. Each evokes the weird mental suspension of travel, since Empathy School takes place on a nighttime ride across Illinois, and Love Story imagines a man wandering the streets of Manhattan. If there are longueurs in these deep-dive introspections, it doesn't really matter. We're drunk with movement, staring out a window as the landscape slides by.
There are surprises in that landscape too. Directing his own work, Landsman reveals a gift for low-key dazzle, including careful use of the Abrons Arts Center's playhouse (we sit onstage for the first section, later in the audience) and a richly conceived environment. It's also a joy to see Jim Findlay—best known as a director-designer—acting. For Empathy School, the first and darker piece, Findlay plays a man going to a funeral, murmuring his thoughts over a microphone as three composer-musicians (Brent Green, Catherine McRae and Kate Ryan) play folk music beside him. A black-and-white film of a highway rolls; the piece was originally built to be performed on a bus. Findlay's whiskey drawl lulls us like late-night radio—he has a teasing and supremely unselfconscious air, even as his character makes it clear that his homecoming is breaking his heart. Landsman has fit the role around him like a glove.
In Love Story, Frank Harts plays a sort of flaneur, an urban dweller eavesdropping on the New Yorkers who ignore him. He reads from his notebook his observations about the city (“filled with young people improperly dressed for spring”), and the wall behind him comes alive with flickering images. It took me a moment to realize that these were Janet Wong's brilliant design; she so integrates her footage with the beautifully crumbling wall, her projections seem actually part of it. Indeed, special tribute must be paid to the look and feel of the evening: Christopher Kuhl designed the lights, and Ben Williams did sound. Appropriately for pieces about place, the show makes you experience the familiar theater with new appreciation; Landsman's texts here are good, but it's the way he writes on the space itself that makes your heart leap with delight.—Helen Shaw
Abrons Arts Center (Off-Off Broadway). Written and directed by Aaron Landsman. With Jim Findlay and Frank Harts. Running time: 1hr 45mins. One intermission.