Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Applause! Applause! Review of The Black Book in the Serene Sargent Theatre at the American Theatre Of Actors by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of “The Black Book" in the Serene Sargent Theatre at the American Theatre Of Actors was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Black Book
Written & Directed by Phil Blechman
Scenic Design by Ann Beyersdorfer
Costume Design by Jennifer O'Brien
Lighting Design by Susannah Baron
Sound Design by Christopher Marc
American Theatre Of Actors
Serene Sargent Theatre
314 West 54th Street
New York, New York 10019
Reviewed 9/12/15 

The Black Book was written in 2007 by Phil Blechman, who then further developed the script while a student at Syracuse University. It was first mounted as a Student Production by Syracuse University's Black Box Players in Fall, 2011. The play had its New York City debut Off-Off Broadway at The Chernuchin Theatre in 2012 and it has now returned for a limited engagement at the Serene Sargent Theatre through November 22, 2015. We are told the play was inspired by the suicide of one of Mr. Blechman's classmates in 2007 and that The Black Book "is an attempt to figure out why" someone in the 15-24 age group commits suicide every hour and forty-eight minutes. The programme note says, "Hopefully, at the end of this performance, you'll want to figure out why, too." After seeing this play, my interest in suicide was not piqued. All I desired to know was why Phil Blechman hadn't yet burned every copy of this convoluted, incomprehensible script that leaves audiences scratching their heads and wondering why they had to be subjected to such unfocused, ridiculous drivel. We are told for some inexplicable reason "to stay one move ahead" and if I hear "I am slowly going crazy. One, two, three, four, five, six, Switch" one more time, my head will explode!

The play takes place on a college campus. Some characters are teachers or employees of the college, some are students, and others may not exist at all. It is completely impossible to tell what is real and what is a dream, and whether the action is taking place today or ten years ago in flashbacks or memories? It also may very well be that half the characters in the play may be the same person existing out of time or in someone's subconscious. I am not perceptive enough to know exactly what the playwright had in mind when writing this story, but I can assure you it has nothing to do with suicide. Yes, there are at least two suicides in the play, one committed by Michael Andrews (Joe Reece), Collin Archer's best friend, and one committed by Nicole (Haley Dean), Michael's girlfriend who Collin Archer (David Siciliano) had a crush on but we clearly observe Collin fighting with Michael and telling him not to see Nicole anymore because he believes he is cheating on her with other women and doesn't deserve her. When he objects, Collin beats him unconscious and strings him up on a tree branch so as to make it appear he killed himself. Collin also confesses his love to Nicole who rejects him with the usual "I wouldn't want to screw up our friendship" speech. It is clear from a dream revealed to Nicole that Collin was the cause of her "suicide" as well. Riley Andrews (Catie Humphreys), Michael sister, now lectures on suicide and reveals that her brother left a suicide note wherein he wrote, "I hope I chose the right branch." 

So here we are, ten years after the "suicides" and Arthur Chase (Gabe Templin), a mild-mannered professor is concerned when one of his students, Collin Archer, misses two classes but leaves a poem on his desk, which Prof. Chase interprets as a possible suicide note. Concerned, Arthur Chase consults with Axel Cooper (Sean Borderes), another professor, who is really himself, as is Collin Archer, since we learn that Arthur Chase published a book based on the poems written in the black book by Collin. Clearly, or not so clearly, Collin took the black book back from Nicole after he killed her. Alex consults Julie Edwards (Margy Love), who he mistakes as being Nicole from ten years ago, and goes into a violent rage after he perceives she has been playing with his affections in the same manner Nicole did. C.C. (Lauren Testerman), the imaginary crazy girl wandering around the stage in a straight jacket, is supposed to be Collin Archer's sister, who was committed to a mental institution but who promised to come back to play chess with him on the tenth anniversary of the death of Nicole. For what reason is anyone's guess. Do you understand the plot now? No. Well, don't worry. No one else does either.

Just in case you might be under the misimpression that the poem left on Arthur Chase's desk by Collin Archer holds the key to understanding the story, I will reprint it here: "Complicated. Confused. Complex. Uncertain of what you'll do next. Tension. Pressure. Stress. Holding so many secrets yet to confess. As this burden crushes down...You find yourself asking questions. Why? When? When will that moment finally come? I've been holding out for so long but your feelings won't succumb. Only one answer. Time...defines us all. Whether we slow down or speed ahead...It's not long before I'm..." Didn't help? Maybe the answer lies in The Power that some of us have and others don't have quite as much of. That sexual appeal that keeps some people going back to the wrong partners, even when those partners are abusive or disrespectful. Or perhaps that is an issue of not having sufficient self-esteem. One theory floated in the play is that you hate people who love you for who you are because you know you have flaws and, therefore, don't believe the sincerity of those who can overlook your flaws or who even love you because of them. 

Enough already! This play is really about the Vulcan pon farr as exhibited in Humans. The pon farr is the state of being sexually aroused, where the person affected undergoes a blood fever and becomes violent and finally dies unless he mates with someone with whom he is empathically bonded or engages in the ritual battle known as kal-if-fee in Star Trek canon. This play is simple to understand when viewed from that perspective. Collin Archer was sexually aroused by Nicole. His blood fever caused him to become violent engaging in kal-if-fee with his best friend Michael over who would win the girl. Collin won, but Nicole rejected him so he killed her as well. The violence allowed him to overcome the blood fever for ten years, but it reignited when another woman started toying with his affections. All the emotions came flooding back fracturing and exposing the various aspects and dimensions of his personality. This only confirms my belief that romantic love is a serious mental illness that needs to be treated as such. Jealousy, possessiveness, irrational thinking are all side effects of this mental disease leading teenagers to commit suicide when their "one-and-only-love" rejects them. They lack the perspective of time and fail to understand the big picture. Namely, that their dysfunctional relationship patterns and randomly reinforced sexual fetishes will simply be repeated and reinforced over the remainder of their lives whether or not they seek or undergo therapy. In other words, they'll get over what now appears to be so emotionally devastating. So, in the end, I guess The Black Book may be about suicide after all, even if we got there in a round-a-about way.

On a positive note, all the actors in this production were top-notch professionals. I also loved the set, the costumes and the lighting. If you decide to take a shot trying to decipher this jigsaw puzzle, you can find additional information about The Black Book at http://www.theblackbook.nyc/

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