Line, Israel Horovitz’s first play, opened in 1967 at La MaMa, and has been running for over 40 years in New York. Having never seen it, I figured there had to be something special going on there. I’ve been impressed by Horovitz’s other plays over the years. So I finally went to see the absurdist one-act in its latest incarnation, now playing on Monday evenings at the 13th Street Playhouse, presented by the 13th Street Repertory Company and Women of Color Productions, Inc. with a fresh young multiracial cast.
I looked forward to an entertaining, well-played work – or least, something of historical interest. Alas, this Line is a disappointment on all counts.
That a new cast member was reading from a script was not by any means the main problem, but it was emblematic of what’s wrong with the production. With the exception of Stephen (a fired-up Eric Willingham), the characters drift aimlessly throughout. And I don’t mean “aimlessly” in the abstract Beckettian sense suggested by the script’s premise of five people waiting on line for a reason none seems to know. I mean it in the stagecraft sense: They are rarely in the moment, and that’s what makes the production fall almost entirely flat.
The early segment dominated by Stephen, a Mozart-lover who joins the line behind taciturn baseball fan Fleming, does establish a tight focus. Hyperactive and fey, Willingham’s Stephen captivates with his energy and his unconventional (for the 1960s setting) outrageousness. You have to suspend your disbelief to buy him as a horny heterosexual, but his pouty exuberance made me happy to do so.
I was even prepared to forgive a mystifying anachronism: The production leaves the script’s period references intact, but interpolates beatboxing and rap at one point.
But the energy quickly dissipates when the rest of the motley crew turns up. The actress playing Molly has flashes of committed magnetism as a vampy version of the only female character, arriving with her meek husband in tow. But as she dances (read: sleeps with) all the men and becomes the focus of their hostility, the production loses what little energy it had left. Their fury and name-calling feel inauthentic, unearned, as if read from a script. The actors don’t seem to have received any guidance as to how to interpret and respond believably to their absurd situation, or how to make us believe in or care about their conflicts and their woes.
An eruption of violence near the end comes as a relief – something “real” is happening! – rather than as the climax the playwright probably intended.
At moments, the production reminded me of looking at those books of old New Yorker cartoons from the 1950s and ’60s, with their wordless multi-panel stories and their hapless Organization Men. But for most of its length, I wished I’d gotten on line for something else. Or had a stiff drink in my hand: Here’s to better incarnations to come. Line continues Mondays through August, and perhaps indefinitely. Get tickets online or at 646-619-8078.