On paper, The Amateurs sounds like a fairly straightforward piece of drama: the story of a group of pageant players traveling around 14th-century Europe as the Black Death gives chase. They seek food, comfort and safety from disease and some semblance of peace on Earth.
However, the show is also a 90-minute masterclass in how to present fascinating, riveting ideas about art, isolation, community and prejudice, and then promptly throwing all of that out of the window.
Directed by Oliver Butler, this new play by Jordan Harrison — running at the Vineyard Theatre through March 18 — is the surprisingly disappointing product of a writer with the ability to completely undo the expectations of any audience with crisp, fascinating thoughts on mortality. For no apparent reason, Harrison chose to forgo his usual style in favor of a somewhat condescending, metatheatrical examination of Renaissance art and drama that is more fit for a doctoral thesis than a stage.
When Hollis, oddly underperformed here by Quincy Tyler Bernstine, loses her brother Henry to the bubonic plague, the traveling troupe of actors she is a part of is badly in need of a new player, lest their chances to be given patronage and safety from the plague dwindle.
Of course, these players are not quite stable in such a dark, unforgiving landscape. Their kind-hearted scenic designer Gregory, played with charm by Michael Cyril Creighton, is left to the verbal abuses of their egotistical director Larking, brought about with gusto and frustration by Thomas Jay Ryan. Rounding out their unusual ensemble is Rona, Larking’s harsh, poorly communicative mistress presented here by Jennifer Kim, and Brom, the closeted innocent “from the North,” played by Kyle Beltran.
At first, it is enthralling and entertaining to observe such imperfect people attempt to put on medieval morality plays or works concerning the Christian morals laid out by the Bible. Larking, who thinks of himself as the smartest of the bunch, naturally plays God.
Brom tries his hardest to play Noah well, boarding his ark in readiness for the great flood. Hollis, however, cannot push away the feeling that her characterization of Noah’s wife is somehow wrong and beneath her ability to create something meaningful out of her acting. This seems especially true in the aftermath of her brother’s death, which seems meaningless. The point only seems hammered home when, following a chilly night, the players meet The Physic, a medieval doctor with a mysterious past, played with unnecessarily constant surprise by Greg Keller.
His mysterious past, however, is pretty much brushed under the table as if its repercussions within medieval society could be so easily overlooked in the recreated atmosphere.
That same atmosphere is one of the production’s few redeeming aspects, with a simple dirt mound set created by David Zinn, surrounded by appropriately creepy music from Bray Poor and enrobed by Jessica Pabst. When the play reaches what grows to be a fascinating midpoint, it is immediately cut short by a bizarre, fourth-wall-smashing detour. Its ostensible attempts to elucidate some of the parallels between the bubonic plague and a much more modern, recent epidemic, only serve to cut short both the runtime and deflate some of the ideas presented in the play.
It almost feels as if Harrison was unsure where to lead the themes he introduced and just decided to completely derail all of the momentum temporarily, even if the information presented was both emotionally endearing and dramaturgically fascinating.
Shoehorning such a long, pointless writer’s note should have been a decision made by the creative team early on, without second thought. Second thoughts, however, were abundantly clear and the body of work presented was much weaker as a result.
The Amateurs bears the seeds of something much more powerful, but the fruit was collected too early. Little moments such as an allegedly magic nail being hammered into a wall, the revelation of The Physic’s true name and the end result of one character’s pregnancy all turn into footnotes that are easily skippable or even emotionally redundant.
This potentially comedic yet poignant work seems far too impressed with itself, and in bad need of the same kind of divine interference that Rona, Brom and Larking ask for when their lives begin to go down the drain. The overworked jokes and slipshod writing bring this sinking ship deeper into the water, bringing all the animals in Noah’s ark down along with it. At least some of them swim.
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