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Love and Yearning in the Not-for-Profits and Other Marital Distractions

By Ari Roth

Directed by Joe Banno

At the DCJCC’s Theater J to April 5

Coyote Builds North America

Original concept and music by John Luther Adams

Stories by Barry Lopez

Directed by Molly Smith

Choreography by Septime Webre

At Arena Stage to April 15

They’re telling stories all over town, stories shot through with “varying degrees of shame, embarrassment, and disappointment.” It’s the guilt of extramarital dalliances, attempted or imagined or assumed, that makes for the comic moments of mortification at Theater J, where one of Ari Roth’s characters utters that line; across town at Arena Stage, though, it’s just the storytelling that makes you wince—and there’s precious little funny about it.

As it turns out, Roth’s Love and Yearning in the Not-For-Profits and Other Marital Distractions is pretty much what you might expect from its oh-so-ironic title: a handful of playlets, both funny and sad, knit together by a couple of framing scenes between Manhattan drama professor Stuart (Michael Russotto) and his art-curator wife, Cordelia (Kimberly Schraf), who stumble across artifacts of each other’s past as they pack for a move to Brooklyn. It’s the built-in ambiguities—and the cast that deftly, amusingly explores them—that make the evening more than just the sum of its seven parts.

How much of what they find between the lines of Stuart’s scripts is invention, how much paranoid imagination? How far did Cordelia get with the arts-agency supervisor (Tim Carlin) whose distracting attentions led to the disastrous typographical errors that found their way into 16,000 opening-night invitations? Did Stuart actually transgress with any of several tempting students (all played by Sarah Fox), or is there another sort of shame tied up in the stories (and the stories within stories) he’s written about them? Roth’s sure way with structure keeps the audience circling, and his sparkling dialogue, all double-entendres and mild Mamet-ic interjections, helps keep all those questions in the air longer than you’d think possible.

But Love and Yearning is a bit more than just an exercise in form (though it certainly is that, and a clever one too; even Lou Stancari’s set, white Tetris cubes frozen in motion, becomes part of the elegant conundrum when Marianne Meadows’ lights pick out individual elements like so many crossword blocks). There are lots of easy laugh lines to keep things moving briskly—”It says ‘The End’ at the end,” snaps Cordelia more than once, when Stuart insists that the possibly incriminating play she’s paging through is just a work in progress—but there’s plenty of genuine wit built in, too, and even a flash of elegantly phrased observation here and there. One of the play’s best lines belongs to one of those transgressive students, a rich kid from upstate who complains that otherwise perceptive people see her as not much more than a bauble, “a sliver of nail polish and privilege in tennis whites.” Another is Schraf’s, as Cordelia ponders “the airport as convergent space—where all destinations seem possible, except for the planetary and the stationary.”

This is a play in which a cell phone can be both embodiment and expression of awkward sexual tension, but it’s not just a Noel Coward evening, all risqué comedy and high-concept confusion: Roth has nerve enough to introduce a creative crisis for Stuart, an emotional crisis for Cordelia, and a major life crisis for one of the students. He has skill enough to keep it all more or less in balance, too, though the cast’s appealing performances and the light touch of director Joe Banno (the Washington City Paper’s opera critic) surely have a lot to do with why this production works as well as it does.

Inevitably, Roth won’t please everyone—there was at least one muffled groan in the audience when Schraf’s Cordelia voiced her variant of the baby-boomer’s eternal what-am-I-doing-with-my-life? lament, and at least one 20-something in the house had shrugged the play off before he got his coat on. But it’s a fine marriage of construct and content, a sparkling urban comedy with a big soft spot at its heart. Between love and yearning, it insists, there’s room for fleeting connections—the kind that linger, profoundly revelatory, long after their moment has passed.

What lingers most vividly, two days after a performance of Coyote Builds North America at Arena Stage, is the thought that somebody, somewhere, could have put that money to better use.

What does a production cost at a company that has traditionally been counted among the nation’s leading regional houses? Let’s see: Six-piece percussion orchestra, two dancers, one storyteller; advanced lighting design, seven or eight hand-painted leotards, two papier-mâché heads; a couple of remote-controlled rocks that glide across the stage; and one large strap-on phallus of what looks to be padded orange fabric (for the “Dance of the Talking Member,” of course)—one colleague guessed a minimum of $300,000. That’s six, maybe eight whole shows at the local companies that are actually producing challenging new work.

Coyote Builds North America is an unhappy restaging of a concept that apparently worked once before for Arena artistic director Molly Smith. That’s partly because, whereas blending music, dance, and spoken word to retell a series of Native American stories was cutting-edge in Alaska circa 1988, that’s pretty old-hat here and now. And that’s partly because Smith’s curiously unfocused direction allows the least inventive elements of the production to steal thunder from the most intriguing: Bill C. Ray’s innovative costumes, for instance, or the astonishing dancing. Septime Webre’s angular, energetic choreography sends two often-masked figures (Yvonne Cutaran and Jason Hartley) leaping and spinning across the Kreeger stage to the visceral throb of John Luther Adams’ drum-heavy score, and the moody images Webre creates when he’s left alone to work can be nothing short of breathtaking. One explosively ingenious sequence involves the enigmatic Coyote-trickster figure and the Whirlwind Woman he’s decided to bed; another, haunting and lyrical and lovely, finds Hartley dancing with a stiff and shrouded Cutaran after the woman Coyote has raised from death has returned to her ungrateful family—and thence to death again.

But over and over, Smith (or a collaborator she should have reined in) asks the dancers to interact, usually playfully, with audience members, the orchestra, or the Storyteller (Tantoo Cardinal) who spins the tales that inspire their gyrations. Almost without exception, it’s a gimmicky idea, a trite and tired device that saps all the magic Hartley and Cutaran have created.

Likewise for the orchestra, which you’d think would have enough to do negotiating Adams’ seductive minor melodies and punishing polyrhythms without being asked to strip their tuxedos off and frolic about in leotards, howling at the moon. Or to stand, pretending to react with amazement, for several minutes as Cardinal spins another Coyote story at center stage.

It’s not fair to the musicians, who shouldn’t be judged by their nonexistent acting ability, and it’s not fair to Cardinal, who seems tentative, hemmed in by the concept, unsure whether to emote or simply recite. And it’s certainly doing no favors to Coyote’s legend: Barry Lopez’s starchy program notes claim that the show ought to make each audience member think about how the Trickster god manifests within his or her own individual nature, but Arena’s take on the concept seems intent on making each audience member think about the shortest possible route to the car. CP