Max (John Lenartz) wakes up in the Catskills with a pocket full of toy soldiers, unsure of who or where he is. He hikes out of the woods reaching a bar in Nyack, New York (the set). Barkeep Ashling (Elise Stone), quietly singing “Tis a gift to be simple/Tis a gift to be free,” is busy redacting every word in a copy of Wuthering Heights, the last book in her house. “It looks like The Warren Report,” Max observes in one of several out of place contemporary references.
John Lenartz (Max)
The book will be wrapped, taped, wrapped and taped again before it’s ceremoniously buried with all the others at a town festival. “We are celebrating freedom,” she tells him. As Paul Simon wrote, “one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.” Ashling has an extremely long cord attached to her waist, “reaching out across the Palisades,” ostensibly connected to a soulmate about whom we hear nothing more. All women wear them.
Ashling proudly tells Max that she’s in a book club whose members write and share their work – before erasing pages with acid allowing for new thoughts. “We are many thousand. They call us the `rags.’” He vaguely recalls being a writer and eventually figures out why the models in his pockets are there (a weak supposition).
Enter Zach (Antonio Edwards Suarez), a “flag.” He and Ashling argue about amendments and the monstrous culture taking over their town. His political faction has turned the event into a barbecue with a hoedown. Ashling doesn’t think there should be dancing. Max observes “It’s a book burning…” seeming neither surprised nor upset. The first part of this play could be both more comprehensible and better written.
Antonio Edwards Suarez (Zach)
Long story short, both Ashling and Zach, accompanied by evocative chimes, are successively possessed by poets whose work they quote. Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost, Hart Crane, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Dorothy Parker, Emily Dickinson… stand before a microphone and interact with Max. Neither Nyack local is aware of what’s happening. Evidently also a teacher, the visitor identifies and reacts to them all. We learn a bit about each poet. The segment is entertaining.
Exactly WHY it’s happening is the crux of the play. The piece is a reaction to current, rampant censorship and features, as the director notes, “a flare of hope for the survival of imagination.” It’s an excellent concept. If only we didn’t have to sit through rags and flags, amendments, and unexplained cords. Surely there must be a better way to set the scene, perhaps with the sobriety of what follows.
The standout here is Elise Stone who morphs from one poet to the next with adjustments in speech/accent and phrasing. John Lenartz is grounded but overblown direction curbs his natural style. Antonio Edwards Suarez is too similar in every role and too affected in several. Curiously Stone plays all but one of the men, Suarez most of the women.
Elise Stone as Ashling, John Lenartz as Max, Antonio Edwards Suarez as Zach
Director Attilio Rigotti has his actors shouting most of the time. While I understand necessary compensations due to the space, exaggeration keeps us at arms length. Additionally, a number of histrionic reactions make no sense.
Lighting (Tony Mulanix) and sound (Ellen Mandel) ably contribute, while costumes by Debbi Hobson- two modern, one- what? are a puzzlement.
Photos by Jonathan Slaff
Opening: Elise Stone as Ashling (Her name means “dream” or vision” referring to the aisling, a poem where Ireland appears as a vision to a poet lamenting hardships.)
Drinks With Dead Poets by Glyn Maxwell
Adapted from the author’s 2016 novel of the same name.
Directed by Attilio Rigotti
Gural Theatre at A.R.T/New York Theatres,
502 West 53rd Street
Through February 11. 2024