Sunday, December 3, 2006

Review - Outing Wittgenstein (Castillo Theatre)

Stage Buzz Review by Byrne Harrison

Douglas Adams’ The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy introduces a drink called the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster — the best alcoholic drink in existence — the effect of which is “like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick.” The same can be said of the Castillo Theatre’s production of Fred Newman’s play Outing Wittgenstein; the show is rich, dense, and tart, but after nearly two hours of getting hit over the head with it, you’re ready for rehab.

Most of this is due to the play itself, not the work of the Castillo Theatre, which does a good job with the unconventional show. In the play, Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is brought back to life in order to appear on Sally McNally’s talk show, ‘This Is Your Death.’ And since any good ‘This Is Your Life’ knock-off has to feature friends of the guest, Sally’s team brings back an assortment of people from Ludwig’s life, including Bertrand Russell, Adolf Hitler, and Carmen Miranda. Wittgenstein is also joined by Wiggy, his flamboyantly gay alter-ego, who is intent on letting the world know that Wittgenstein was gay.

With me so far? Okay. Now throw in a condensed version of Wittgenstein’s philosophy from Tractatus to his theories on language, a story about his last words, a dance number featuring Carmen Miranda with Bertrand Russell as one of her backup dancers, an appearance by Gretl, Wittgenstein’s sister who is, oddly enough, Sally McNally’s alter ego, and there you have Outing Wittgenstein. At least the first act.

The second act moves from the television studio to Central Park where a group of friends are discussing Wittgenstein, his philosophy, his sexuality, and his appearance on Sally McNally’s show. Sexual secrets come to light and reality is turned on its head as the true nature of Wittgenstein, Wiggy, Sally, and any number of the other characters, is revealed in an incredible twist. That’s ‘incredible’ as in implausible to the point of eliciting disbelief.

This brings up the major problem of the play: it’s a farce that’s trying a little too hard to be educational — or perhaps vice versa. Newman wants his audience to come away from this play with an understanding of the basics of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, life, and influences, while addressing the nature of sexuality and identity. But he wants to do it in a rollicking and outrageous farce, full of wild characters and absurd situations. Unfortunately, the two do not combine well. This is especially obvious in the first act, where the absurdity of bringing a dead man (not to mention his gay alter ego) back to life for a talk show, then having a guest appearance by Hitler and a dance number with Carmen Miranda, is undercut by dialogue that sounds like a lecture in Philosophy 101.

The second act is better integrated, primarily because all of the philosophy and background has already been presented. As a result, the action moves faster, allowing the absurdity to shine.

The large cast is generally good, and features several outstanding performances. Chief among these are Kenneth Hughes as Herman, the randy announcer on ‘This Is Your Death,’ James Arden as Wittgenstein’s flamboyantly gay alter ego, and Gary Patent as Eddie Thomas, one of the friends in Central Park. If the actors in the show can be said to have any one problem, and this is more in the first act, it is that several of them seem unsure what they are supposed to do when not speaking. Some shut down, quietly marking time until their next line. One or two resorted to mugging for the audience. A firmer grip by director Dan Friedman could have helped manage this.

Castillo Theatre deserves high marks for the production values in Outing Wittgenstein. The decision to use two different theatre spaces, one for the talk show, another for Central Park, forces set designer Joseph Spirito to do double duty and he responds admirably, creating two very well-done sets. Alexander Casagrande’s lighting design complements both of them nicely. Also worth noting is Barry Z. Levine and Joseph Spirito’s video design used in ‘This Is Your Death’, which helped cement the illusion of being on a real talk show soundstage.

One final note about the production. It features several actors from Youth Onstage!, the youth theatre of the All Star Project, which brings performance-based educational programs to inner city youth in Newark and New York City. Castillo Theatre is to be commended for giving these talented youth an opportunity to be part of the Off-Off Broadway scene and part of an unusual and challenging play like Outing Wittgenstein. Considering how many young actors don’t get to do anything more challenging than Arsenic and Old Lace or Pippin in high school, this is a great thing. Here’s hoping that these young actors continue to pursue theatre in the future.

Written by Fred Newman
Directed by Dan Friedman

Castillo Theatre
543 West 42nd Street

Through December 3rd