Review: Tom Ryan Thinks He's James Mason...

Tom Ryan Thinks He's James Mason...

Tom Ryan Thinks He's James Mason... Photograph: Daniel Fish

* * * * * (FIVE STARS)
Tom Ryan Thinks He's James Mason Starring in a Movie by Nicholas Ray in Which a Man's Illness Provides an Escape from the Pain, Pressure and Loneliness of Trying to Be the Ultimate American Father, Only to Drive Him Further Into the More Thrilling Though Possibly Lonelier Roles of Addict and Misunderstood Visionary

Incubator Arts Project (see Off-Off Broadway)
By Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum. Directed by Daniel Fish. With Thomas Jay Ryan and Christina Rouner. 1hr 15mins. No intermission.

Amazingly, all the summation you could possibly need is not contained within the overstuffed title above. Director Daniel Fish—for whom much must be excused, since his strangely joyful show manages across-the-board excellence—kicks in with a little extra help, subtitling his stylish film-dissection "An X-Ray of Nicholas Ray's Bigger than Life."  I admit, all that verbiage moved over me like a wave when I first encountered it, but after seeing the production, the wave rushed out, leaving understanding in its wake.

Against designer Peter Ksander's simple, slanting gray wall, Thomas Jay Ryan and Christina Rouner perform, as promised, the script from Nicolas Ray's 1956 melodrama Bigger than Life. That film, a Technicolor hysteric of the first order, starred James Mason as a mild-mannered teacher driven mad by cortisone abuse. Life's emotional volume is so extreme—the scenes of Mason brandishing scissors so lurid—that even Fish's strict stylization does not bleach away its delicious purple.

Fish's aesthetic strategy is simple: Rouner and Ryan recite all the script's lines, alternating characters just as two people do while reading a play aloud. They speak quickly and never telegraph scene shifts, so we're kept spinning and disoriented as one moment Ryan sounds like a taxi dispatch, the next like the principal Rouner played minutes before. The only personae they reserve for themselves are druggie-dad Ed (Ryan) and wife Lou (Rouner), so we know exactly who's who during the flatly delivered, flatly hysterical sex scene.

Ryan is often the best thing about any show he is in; he even manages to be the best thing about shows he isn't in, as a wistful critic imagines him taking over for some less subtle talent. Here the long and elegant Rouner matches him beautifully—a stately exclamation point to his aggressively hunching question mark—and the two of them are striking and Hitchcockian in the wheeling TV-studio lights. The sexiest thing here, though, is Fish's approach, which both loves and ironizes its source, both chills and reheats old material. I left thinking of all the many pieces I want Fish to do in this noir literalist style—and wondering impatiently how quickly he can start.