Off-Broadway Review: “The Possibilities” and “The After-Dinner Joke” at Atlantic Stage 2

Off-Broadway Review: PTP/NYC’s “The Possibilities” and “The After-Dinner Joke” at Atlantic Stage 2 (Closed Sunday August 5, 2018)
By Howard Barker and Caryl Churchill
Directed by Richard Romagnoli and Cheryl Faraone
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

PTP/NYC’s thirty-second season includes two plays by the company’s “usual suspects.” The double bill, currently running at Atlantic Stage 2, includes four of the ten short plays in Howard Barker’s 1987 “The Possibilities” and Caryl Churchill’s 1977 “The After-Dinner Joke.” Both offerings invite the audience to grapple with provocative content that often seems elusive and controversial and that raises numerous essential, enduring questions.

In November 2011, A. E. Dobson wrote in “Exeunt Magazine” that Howard Barker’ works “are organized around antinomies of reason: circumstances and actions whose meaning can be justifiably explained in a number of opposing (and often mutually exclusive) ways.” Antinomies of reason abound in the four short Barker plays. Under Co-Artistic Director Richard Romagnoli’s ingenious direction, seven actors portray the twelve characters found in “The Unforeseen Consequences of a Patriotic Act,” “Reasons for the Fall of Emperors,” “Only Some Can Take the Strain,” and “She Sees the Argument But.”

In the first, “The Unforeseen Consequences of a Patriotic Act,” a Woman (a determined yet naïve Eliza Renner) visits the exiled Judith (a stalwart and conniving Kathleen Wise) and her servant (a strident and steely Marianne Tatum) to convince Judith to return to Jerusalem and accept the accolades she deserves for saving Israel by offering herself to, and ultimately beheading Holofernes. In the second, “Reasons for the Fall of Emperors,” Alexander of Russia (an entitled and presumably contrite Jonathan Tindle) confides in the peasant who shines his boots (a convincing and powerfully focused Christopher Marshall) about his discomfort about the killing in battle but then orders his officer (a stiff and obedient Adam Milano) to have him brutally flogged. In both short plays, nothing is what it might seem to be on the surface, and no one can be fully trusted to be telling the whole truth. Kudos to an unflappable Madeleine Russell who portrays an unconventional woman in a society that come to mistrust the exposure of women’s ankles in “She Sees the Argument But.”

Co-Artistic Director and Producing Director Cheryl Faraone takes the directorial helm for Caryl Churchill’s “The After-Dinner Joke” and guides her talented cast through a successful sailing on the waves of the playwright’s “stew of twisted narrative chronology” that serves up magical realism and dining room farce in the guise of a narrative about charity and “wanting to do good.” Personal secretary Selby (an optimistic but gullible Tara Giordano) tells her boss Mr. Price (an effusive and double-talking Jonathan Tindle) that she wants to quit her job at Price’s Bedding and take money from the rich to give to the poor. After (unsuccessfully) seeking help from the Mayor (an affable and dystopic Christopher Marshall), Selby “a Candide-like do-gooder” travels the world trying to find the perfect location to fulfill her charitable mission. The large cast takes on multiple roles in this rollicking fantasy and successfully lets the audience in on Churchill’s “joke.”

Hallie Zieselman designs the sparse but functional sets for both plays. Annie Ulrich’s costumes, Joe Cabrera’s lighting, and Cormac Bluestone’s sound effectively support the staging of these two important plays.