“I don’t know anything. I know I don’t know anything.” — Alastair Sim

March 29, 2010

MAURA TIERNEY

I learned something about myself yesterday: I’m not hip. I thought otherwise, but yesterday I saw The Wooster Group’s musical play — at least, I think that’s what it was — at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York, and I realized that I am a Pod.

This play, which has been around in one form or another since 1983, is called “North Atlantic.” That’s because it is set on an American aircraft carrier, during the cold war, off the coast of the Netherlands. It’s 90 minutes long. The creators have opted for no intermission. No doubt they had in mind to maintain the continuity of the piece at which, in a certain sense, they succeeded. The piece certainly continued — so much so that 90 minutes seemed like a geologic epoch. Another benefit of eschewing a break, perhaps unintended, is that the audience stayed to the end. I know four people who would have opted for an earlier dinner at Park and Orchard.

FRANCES McDORMAND

Far from disliking experimental theater, I have always appreciated it. But then, I have always understood it. In 1969, for example, I saw Omar Shapli’s play, “Rules for the Running of Trains on the Erie Railroad to go into Effect on Jan. 1, 1882 – Section 10,” and I understood that the frenetic activity and the references to the Haymarket Riot and the reportage of Nelly Bly was painting a portrait of American life, and the hypocrisy that affected it, at the turn of the 20th century.

By contrast, at the Baryshnikov yesterday, I had no idea what was going on, and I’d wager that most of those in the theater who pretended that they did understand were embarrassed to admit the truth. The program was an unbroken stream of scrambling about, incongruous argument, unprovoked yelling, and filthy sexual repartee. The actors frequently and by design talked over each other so that any chance, however remote, that a clip of dialog here or there would make sense was conclusively thwarted. It may be apocryphal, but I heard a rumor that the playwright, James Strahs, appeared backstage in a fury after the show because he thought he had heard a coherent sentence.

A scene from "North Atlantic"

This play, which has been revised and revived several times over the decades, is offered as a spoof of programs such as, say, “South Pacific,” that portray life in the military. If I hadn’t learned better, I’d have thought that it was a sophomoric attempt at best. The constant stream of graphic references to penises and vaginae and variations of intercourse sounded more like a spoof of the conversations in the locker room at Passaic Valley High School, say around 1958. It turns out, though — as it frequently does in my life — that I was on the outside looking in. The critic in the Los Angeles Times, commenting on the West Coast run of this revival, said so in so many words: “The piece navigates in a zone that will be a delight to devoted fans and avant-garde hipsters but will probably leave ordinary theatergoers dog-paddling to safety.”

All this time, I thought I was an avant-garde hipster, whereas I was actually the duffer flapping around at the shallow end of the pool.

I have only myself to blame for this rather expensive faux pas. I talked my companions into seeing this play because Maura Tierney was in the cast. My wife and I had seen her two previous appearances on New York stages, and I didn’t think we needed any more evidence than her magnetic presence in those plays and my general conviction that she is a fine actress. It wasn’t discouraging at all to also note that Oscar winner and Tony nominee Frances McDormand is in the ensemble.

I’m going to see Boyd Gaines in A.J. Gurney’s play “Sylvia” later this week. It’s about a man who brings home a stray dog he finds in a park. I think I’ll understand it.

Some of the players in "North Atlantic"


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One Response to ““I don’t know anything. I know I don’t know anything.” — Alastair Sim”

  1. Nikki Says:

    I also saw the play in LA and I mirror your comments, I had no clue as to what I had just watched. There was a lady sat next to me who seemed to find it hysterical almost from the first word uttered. I thought that she must be on drugs and was hallucinating.
    I thought that it was set sometime during the war and couldn’t quite figure out where the modern day references were coming from until I read in the program that it was set in the 80’s.
    So glad that my friend and I were not the only ones that had no idea what was going on.

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