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Off-Broadway Review

The Barker Poems: Gary the Thief and Plevna: Meditations on Hatred

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The Barker Poems: Gary the Thief and Plevna: Meditations on Hatred
Photo Source: Stan Barouh
"Poem" is the operative word here. British playwright Howard Barker is offering up two blank-verse ruminations, each recited by one man, together totaling little more than 50 minutes. Barker fans will find much to admire in his graceful and pointed use of language (occasionally a bit too cute) and meditative distance, even when the speakers seem at their most impassioned. Just don't expect anything like a play or two. Even Barker acknowledges the limitations of "the poet's horror at the fallibility of words." Director Richard Romagnoli, a longtime Barker collaborator, is on board with this, orchestrating just enough movement by his players without having them actually do much of anything other than recite. Technical credits, apart from the unobtrusive lighting by Hallie Zieselman, are virtually nonexistent, and the actors even appear to be self-costumed.

"Gary the Thief," the curtain raiser, is delivered by Robert Emmett Lunney, unaccountably in one of those down-market British accents that borders on speech impediment and slips an unwanted extra layer between actor and audience. It's also a cliché accent for playing a thief, quite unnecessary when the character is not nationality-specific. Gary's updated Robin Hood defense for his thievery, as he rails against the "monkeys" and "cattle" of politer society, is "Your greed dwarfs my offence." He claims to be purposefully blending in with his enemies, the better to excoriate them, pilfering, among other things, their language. Would that he had appropriated a more posh accent and less-conspicuous clothing: Lunney's black mock turtleneck and faux sharkskin suit again scream cliché.

Alex Draper fares better as the narrator in the second half of the program, although his wardrobe is equally inexplicable: black tie, with the tie loosened. At least he's talking in his own natural American accent. He also has the weightier subject matter: societal rivalries rather than individual ones, leading to larger states of war. While "Plevna: Meditations on Hatred" displays a vaguely Middle Eastern or Balkan overtone, its premises are all too universal: "the peculiar innocence of the imperialist; his dismay at the phenomenon of revolt" and "the amazement of the liberator who discovered the oppressed ate better than he did." Barker doesn't spare the merchant, who "cannot comprehend the quarrel. He bows with equal unctuousness to both sides." The author's words and insights shine even brighter in this equally brief bill closer.


Presented by PYP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) in association with Middlebury College at Atlantic Stage 2, 330 W. 16th St., NYC. July 12–31. Schedule varies. (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.

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