Walking into the small theater at 59E59, I was immediately engaged by the minimalist set for Toys: A Dark Fairy Tale (running through November 26th, tickets $25), which comprised of a plain white stage, a white back wall, a white square stage, and little else but for a video camera on a tripod, a teddy bear, and is that a fax machine down right? Once the lights dimmed and then illuminated the stage – after a brief phone call recording that played while the fax machine is spot lit – there was a prolonged stare from a woman in big sunglasses and large scarf stage left. The mysterious woman continued mutely staring at the small, blond woman downstage right who asked her multiple questions, noticeably uncomfortable with the silence. It would seem that “Madonna” (Tunde Skovran) is from a war-torn country called Karvystan, and “Clara” (Julia Ubrankovics) is a PhD student writing a dissertation about Women in war zones. Clara wishes to interview Madonna, but Madonna has other ideas in mind: she is there to reveal that, in fact, they are sisters who were separated when Clara – originally “Fatma”- was adopted and taken to the U.S. as a toddler.
As the play got going, the premise of two women onstage, discussing privilege and the gaps between those who emigrate to a more peaceful place as well as those who stay behind in their violent homeland, seemed promising The two women are presented as polar opposites: Madonna, who reveals her real name to be Shari, from the country in war knows trauma. She has seen little girls suicide-grenade themselves for the sake of their country, their honor, and their religious freedom. Clara from sleepy Connecticut, on the other hand, knows comfort. She still loves playing with toys, despite the fact that she is a PhD student, about to be married and ready to complete her version of the American dream.
The moments that shone brightest in this piece were the short exchanges between Madonna and Clara that highlight the way that differences as vast as theirs chafe at and erode attempts at bare-bones communication, how they all but preclude the possibility of closeness. Playwright Saviana Stanescu excels at these moments, and has likely mined experiences from her own life split between two countries as an academic living in the U.S. but born and raised in Romania. The play’s initial dialogue expounds upon this split: it’s not even so much that Shari and Clara disagree with each other, or think they are wrong for holding the views they hold. In fact, they probably can see where each other is coming from, on some level. But there’s a bigger problem standing in the way – it’s the divergent ways they talk, the levels of tangibility or symbolism in their internal language. Early on, Clara uses a metaphor to speak about her mother’s recent clinginess in the wake of her father’s death – “my mom became a spider, clinging on to me like [a spider]” – but before she can finish, Shari yanks the steering wheel away – “Your mother is a spider?” “No, you know-” Clara attempts to explain her figurative language, but Shari harshly interrupts: “I don’t know.” The very meaningless of the colloquialism becomes cause for distance – Shari has no time for “um”s or “you know”s, just like she has no space for metaphor. “People transform,” Shari says, yanking again. “They can become spiders, lions, panthers… You never know what animal hides inside a person.”
The abstract/concrete division deepens as they continue to talk: “Nobody cares about us. We are like orphans,” Shari laments. Seemingly at a loss, Clara says, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” a response that rankles Shari immediately. “I don’t feel that way, it is that way.” As this scene continues Shari puts her money where her mouth is by concretizing her world for Clara in an instant by plucking a hand grenade out of her pocket and placing it on the floor. “I used to play with this,” she says, after a brief discussion of the toys that apparently fill the room (although we cannot see them as an audience). When Clara attempts to de-escalate by saying, “There is no war here. No danger. You are safe. OK?” Shari immediately scoffs at her use of the word OK, Clara’s implied belief that she can remove a situation’s danger by simply labeling it as all right.
Aside from such interesting bits of dialogue though, this production quickly revealed a lack of both emotional logic and purposeful design / directorial choices. The minimalist set was at odds with the content, which could have easily been depicted by lived-in psychological realism. Moreover, the many moments clearly designed to bring us out of any such realist logic took us further and further away from any understanding of these two women. For example: the movement score with dozens of plastic baby dolls’ heads being ripped off, combined with a bit of hand puppetry to illustrate a long-ago flashback; the unwarranted nudity revealing (albeit) beautifully painted script on Skovran’s chest and back; most of all, the completely confused ending sequence that attempted to portray a moment of soft bonding between long-lost sisters, but instead oscillated between some timid clowning for the audience and the burlesque-like sort of pillow fight scene that the stereotypical straight man fantasizes about.
The show’s director, Gábor Tompa, seems to have primarily directed the classics – Chekhov, Beckett, Bücnher, Ionesco, Pirandello, etc. – and I can only imagine he brought the methods and aesthetics he’s cultivated from those experiences to this one. A process that might look something like: take an old play, add diverging, inventive, and/or disturbing elements to it that excavate the original play, thereby bringing new pieces of it to light and helping the audience see it from our contemporary perspective. But this was a mismatch for so many reasons: this play is contemporary, and fairly new: it was put up for the first time, I believe, with the same cast and crew in Hollywood in 2015. It is intimate, about the bonds between two women who discover they are sisters, about unbearable pain in the lives of both of them, about potentially unbridgeable distances between the Western paradigm and developing nations in dangerous times. Almost all of this nuance felt buried under all of the chaos draped on top of it.
That said, the writing of the piece itself did not take enough time or care with many of its themes either, often resorting to heavy-handed plotting and overly simplistic developments and conclusions. In the play’s beginning, a simple but rich dichotomy was presented: Shari speaks from trauma, and Clara from comfort. But instead of complicating this starting point, it is coarsely resolved within a few lines. It is revealed that, actually, Clara knows trauma, too – when she was a young girl, her 15-year-old neighbor babysat and molested her. This sort of reductive “misery poker” seemed to say: you thought people from war-torn countries had it tough, but we all have it tough, so let’s just go (as these characters will eventually do in the course of the production) play games with garbage bag wedding dresses and nighties with too much cleavage and call it a day. I was a bit appalled at the fact that anyone thought such a complicated story could be explored in a mere 50 minutes, perhaps half of comprised of the many minute-long game-dance (described above) between the two reunited sisters.
Despite the tonal confusion, the play does gesture towards a nice final moment: the two women finally get to play with one another, as they never could as children. Shari hums the tune to a song from their home country at Clara’s request; tenderness tentatively surfaces. Perhaps they begin to understand each other’s situation through nonverbal communication.
But these profound moments of insight felt fleeting, almost incidental. As I watched, I kept thinking to myself as I watched, Am I being too harsh? Am I just not getting it? Is it because I’m as naïve and American as Clara the assimilated Eastern European is at the beginning? I am very willing to concede that this may be the case. But while I enjoy experimentation and different formal approaches than what I’m used to in the theater, I’m also aware when such experiments and approaches feel earned and when they simply feel unnecessary. I needed to see clearer intention behind design and directorial choices to tell me that they were there for a good reason.