Monday, July 27, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of Pamela Robbins' The Cosmic Lives Of The Antiquarians at Manhattan Repertory Theatre by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Pamela Robbins' The Cosmic Lives Of The Antiquarians at Manhattan Repertory Theatre was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Cosmic Lives Of The Antiquarians
Written & Directed by Pamela Robbins
Manhattan Repertory Theatre
303 West 42nd Street, 6th Floor
New York, New York 10036
Reviewed 7/24/15 at 7:00 p.m. 

In popular culture, the Age of Aquarius refers to the advent of the New Age and Peace Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. However, by naming this play The Cosmic Lives Of The Antiquarians, Pamela Robbins, the playwright, chose to open a debate as to whether anything those idealistic peaceniks did through their drug use, free love, coffee houses, anti-war songs, rallies, and demonstrations had any long-term impact on society. Using the term in its pejorative sense, "antiquarians" are viewed as "lacking an awareness of the realities and practicalities of modern life, and of the wider course of history." Hence the Antiquarians in this play, who work at the Antiquarius Book Store, sell books on peace, aspire to give money "to worthy causes," and bicker over petty personal issues, may simply have been blind to how little impact they were really having on the world. Ms. Robbins admits in her bio, "I grew up during the Peace Movement and as a younger person ardently believed that 'mankind's efforts, worldwide, would put an end to war'. The fact that warfare did not cease after Vietnam was crushing." In order to reinforce her message, one of the characters in her play, commenting on the bookstore, says, "The whole scheme was crap. No one can change the world." while another reflects, "We were just dumb. You can't change the whole grand theme of things with an idea." At the end of this surprisingly substantive and insightful play, we learn that the only real peace that may exist for us is in death.

The play opens in the Staff Room of the Psychology Department at St. George University somewhere in the Midwest in 1968. Alma, Tad, Luke and Andy are all medical or psychology department interns when Alma learns she has inherited money from her parents, both who died in a boating accident the year before. Alma decides to use the money to open Antiquarius Books, a new peace-related bookstore. Miss Bidittendotten, Alma's Psychology Department Supervisor, reminds her that "peace can be brought to the world in any environment" but she is adamant about opening the bookstore and all the rest of the interns decide to  join her. The bookstore struggles until Lena, the 17-year-old daughter of Reverend Patterson, a preacher at the Free Baptist Church, comes along and volunteers her time. Using her friendly personality and contacts, the bookstore soon flourishes and becomes a huge success but Alma becomes jealous of how all the boys are more attracted to Lena than they are to her. Due to this petty rivalry, especially over the affections of Tad, Alma indirectly encourages Lena to attend a dangerous demonstration at which a stray bullet takes her life. The Antiquarians are blamed, the bookstore fails, and the lives of all the interns unravel and spiral downwards. In time, Tad attempts to kill himself, Luke moves to Colorado and overdoses on illegal drugs, Andy moves away to leave all the "baggage" behind, Rev. Patterson gives up his position and moves in with his sister, and Alma, blaming herself for Lena's death, becomes depressed and unproductive, finally forgiving herself seconds before she passes away.

Obviously the play is not a comedy, although it does have a number of light-hearted moments especially when two songs are sung by hippies of all ages during one of the bookstore's Coffee Houses. Alma chooses to call her little band of followers "antiquarians" because she says it will show they "are serious" and then exclaims, "It will be cosmic!" But it turns out not to be cosmic, but tragic instead! Foreshadowing the futility of their efforts, Andy reports having a dream about two identical skyscrapers being blown up at some point in the future. He then draws a "Ban The Bomb" poster with the Twin Towers on it surrounded by a cloud of smoke. My favorite line in the play was when Luke turned to Andy immediately after he reported this nightmare and said, "You need to bunk with me tonight. If you have another bad dream, I can wake you up." Andy readily agrees and I thought, "What a come-on line!" Later, Alma, reflecting her own doubts about the worthiness of her efforts, imagines Ms. Bidittendotten offering her a chance to work on a psychological study looking into "the susceptibility of young people from unstable environments to join cultish-type movements." 

Lyndsey Munter was a delight to watch on stage with her charismatic portrayal of Lena, the young and idealistic preacher's daughter who wanted "to inspire other young people to discover their true earthly mission" by using "music therapy to help others save the world." Tom Morwick was solid and successful presenting Reverend Patterson as both a loving father concerned about his daughter hanging out with hippies while, simultaneously, having a big enough heart to provide food to the struggling bookstore volunteers and to welcome them into his church. Wil Hart, a rising star, was very strong as Tad, both as an actor and in his role as a musician. Morgan Wright as Alma, and Linda Meris as Miss Bidittendotten handled their roles well. However, Charles Moxley as Luke, and his identical brother Lenard as Andy, both overacted to the point of distraction. They are clearly attractive and talented actors, but my advice to them is not to try so hard. Just be yourself on stage and don't feel the need to overemphasize your lines. The Coffee House Guests included Pia Finnegan, Rosalie R. Harman, Cheryl Lisbin-Sifuentes, Linda Meris, Richard Memminger, and Lily Nass. 

One of Alma's final statements was to say, "We thought if we rallied, we could stop hate." It is clear from this production of The Cosmic Lives Of The Antiquarians that all the Coffee Houses, rallies and demonstrations didn't get them close to achieving their long-term goal of changing the culture of society and bringing peace and love to the world. Perhaps it was naive for them to believe they ever had a chance of succeeding. In the end, we are left watching old, aging women dressed in their original 1960s hippie outfilts blindly and robotically singing "songs of peace" to an audience and a world that is not listening and couldn't care less about their childish and naive idealism. All there is left to do now is to wait for these last-living fossils of the Peace Movement to die just as every character in this play also dies by the time the final curtain falls.

1 comment:

  1. "It was sad. Lord, sad. It was sad, Lord, sad...!" But the peaceniks and the beatniks will surely rise again and eventually they "shall overcome"!

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