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We’re accustomed to thinking of character-driven shows as actor’s vehicles, but if ever one deserved to be termed a director’s vehicle, Anne Washburn’s absurdo-noir comedy The Internationalist is it. Written partly in an indecipherable made-up language, this tale of an American businessman who gets lost in translation overseas requires a staging that can pull laughs from deliberately garbled punch lines, emotion from missed signals, and meaning from nonsense syllables. At Studio Theatre, director Kirk Jackson and a nimble-tongued cast of six mine the play’s verbiage for every vein of knottiness, abstruseness, perplexity, and incomprehension it has and emerge with a deliciously funny narrative about miscommunication. Natty, cheerful Lowell (Tyler Pierce) is, in the space of about 45 onstage seconds, subjected to 16 hours of in-flight distress—spritzed, rumpled, disheveled, given a wedgie, and delivered as a slovenly wreck to an unspecified Eastern European destination where he’s almost immediately apologizing for inadvertently insulting Sara, (Tonya Beckman Ross) the attractive colleague who picks him up at the airport. Arriving still jet-lagged at the office, he encounters officemates who sport unfamiliar business habits, a varying facility in English, and an only spotty interest in keeping him in the loop as business deals unravel and crises arise. It’s quickly apparent that serious communication is unlikely for a host of social, political, and practical reasons. And a discomfiting hilarity ensues as Lowell learns that a joke told in English can be as incomprehensible as one told in the language of his colleagues, that a hearty slap on the back can be a terrible faux pas, and that the language of love isn’t nearly as universal as he’d supposed. The supporting cast—Holly Twyford as the office’s mother hen, Cameron McNary as its resident sexist, Jason Lott as its least-secure English-speaker, and James Konicek as both its contact-averse boss and its supercilious, least-predictable employee—would deserve high marks simply for memorizing the astonishing chunks of gibberish they must spew with such emphatic meaning. But they’re also deft physical comics; Lott has a gambit with a martini olive, and Twyford a pushback gesture (wielded while playing a prostitute) that garner explosive laughs without any linguistic assist. If the author has an overarching message about either babble or Babel, it escaped me, but Jackson and his cast ensure that everything Washburn has to say on those subjects is expressed with wit and a startling clarity. So much clarity, in fact, that the audience will likely be in doubt about the general tenor of what’s being said only when it’s in English. And perhaps that’s the point. —Bob Mondello
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Theater J’s world premiere musical hasn’t yet made up its mind about itself, so why should you? Option A: It’s the kind of dutiful, straight-ahead retelling of the life of David that could go on to enjoy a long life in synagogues and Sunday schools. Option B: It’s an ambitious modern meta-commentary on history’s most famous sheep-herder. Compelling argument for Option A: Yehuda Hyman’s punishingly simplistic libretto, which values rhyme over rhythm so thoroughly that the performers are constantly swallowing syllables just to get to the end of a line. What’s usually waiting for them there (Do/You, me/See, king/Thing) is rarely worth such torturous effort, especially when the expository load proves too much for Hyman, and he just starts letting words rhyme with themselves. (The most memorable lyrics in the whole damn show, alas, run thusly: “Tra la la la David/Tra la la la David/Tra la la la David/Tra la la la la!”) Compelling argument for Option B: Daniel Hoffman’s music, which embraces dissonance and countermelody in interesting, if not particularly memorable, ways. Another pomo signifier: the production’s willingness to tweak its subject matter. Sometimes this playfulness kinda works (Bobby Smith’s King Saul adds a welcome, if shouty, layer of irony), but most of the time it merely puzzles: Why in G-d’s name is Will Gartshore’s Absalom skulking across the stage in togs from Hot Topic? A framing device features an aged Adam (Norman Aronovic) and the angel Metatron (Donna Migliaccio) watching a film of David’s life. It’s an old gambit but an honest one, in that it provides the show an opportunity to actually say something about its subject, to espouse a clear point of view. But the viewpoint it provides is a disappointingly literal one: The two actors just sit motionless in a darkened corner of the stage, watching events unfold. Occasionally Adam throws out a “Way to go, David!” or a “Not good, David!” and Metatron eventually gets in on the action, but not before the sheer inefficiency of that staging choice is made plain. The shadow-puppet interplay between Colin K. Bills’ lighting and Misha Kachman’s giant moving screens provide several nice touches, though, and the cast, led by Matt Pearson as Young David, is in fine voice. The show also earns points for addressing David’s feelings toward Saul’s son Jonathan—an issue that sends biblical scholars into paroxysms of either gay panic or queer-theory advocacy—by splitting the difference in an unapologetic way that inspired this, overheard during intermission: “So…he was kind of a switch-hitter, hunh?” Despite its considerable flaws, David in Shadow and Light shows some measure of potential. Those flaws need further consideration—and the librettist a better rhyming dictionary—because right now just about all of that potential, like Aronovic’s Adam, just sits there. —Glen Weldon
In Crumble (Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake), it’s the apartment (Jason Stiles) that gets the best lines. Makes sense: Sheila Callaghan’s subject is the emotional walls that separate us, so it follows that she’d ascribe language and emotions to the physical walls dividing her characters. Thus Stiles gamely switches between wounded hauteur (he used to be a well-appointed mansion, see) and pitched resentment toward his current inhabitants at the drop of a ceiling tile. Crumble is packed with such showy devices; when they work, they open up the production nicely, lending the narrowly focused onstage events a greater impact than you expect. Credit much of that to the technical chops of the Catalyst design team: Robbie Hayes’ exquisitely ramshackle set, and Jason Cowperthwaite’s uncanny lighting, which strikes the stage at angles that, like the apartment itself, are defiantly off-plumb. But it’s Matthew M. Nielson’s eerie, evocative audio collages of creaks and thumps that do a lot of the production’s heavy lifting by establishing a network of wordless connections between the grieving Mother (Elizabeth H. Richards) and her 11-year-old daughter Janice (Casie Platt). The problem for director Serotsky, in fact, is that her designers have fleshed out the show’s subtext so well that Callaghan’s text, which goes a bit purple around the edges on more than one occasion, can seem ungainly by comparison. Take another narrative gimmick: Mother has a thing for Harrison Ford while Janice’s tastes run toward tow-headed ephebe Justin Timberlake, both played in fantasy sequences by Eric Messner. It’s doubtlessly fun watching Messner bust out JT’s cheesier dance moves to bring sexy more or less back, or mimic the sandbag-golden idol switcheroo from Raiders. But because the parallels between Mother and daughter are already so well-established, you can’t help but wonder what real work those scenes are doing. Another thing: early on, Serotsky isolates her actors physically by ensconcing them in the complex set’s disparate nooks. As the characters haltingly begin to engage one another, the ensuing awkwardness is played for yuks. But eventually (and the show’s just 75 minutes long, so it’s a short wait) a quieter impulse replaces the broadly comic one, and mother and daughter actually manage to connect. Ssssort of. In their own small, dark, odd way. Which also makes sense, because it’s a lot like the impression this show leaves with you: small, dark, and gratifyingly odd. —GW