Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag: Review by Helen Shaw
In American playwriting, there’s no voice quite like Sibyl Kempson’s: surrealo-maximalist with dialogue as twangy as dueling banjos. Her gonzo play with songs, Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag, is a rhapsodic plunge into hallucinogenic waters, but its actual exchanges—between Depression-era tenant farmers and two Big City chroniclers—have the clarity and force of trumpet solos.
Kempson’s tale is super weird, giving the power of prophecy to farmer Tory (Eleanor Hutchins), then sending Susan Sontag (Tanya Selvaratnam) to scold Jay (a version of Farm Security Administration photographer Walker Evans) for taking her family’s pictures. Was Evans’s work poverty tourism? Sontag purses her lips. As a production, Let Us Now Praise is unsteady: Sometimes shoot-the-moon strategies work (Robert M. Johanson, holding a darkroom-set over his head, bellows a song about “L’image” ); sometimes they spin out of control. Despite elaborate trash-costumes by Suzanne Bocanegra, the play looks unfinished, and Abrons’s inhospitable downstairs concrete venue lets Ashley Turba’s excellent songs ring but strands the actors. Kempson’s work crackles, as always, with strange energies, but this time the sizzle hasn’t organized itself into a lightning strike.—Helen Shaw
Abrons Arts Center (Off-Off Broadway). Written and directed by Sibyl Kempson. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 10mins. One intermission.