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New York Theater

Tower of Babel

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A red-haired woman greets me in the hallway of P.S. 122: "Hi, I'm Fiona. Would you like to come with me?" I follow her into the theatre space, which resembles an Ikea showroom: 25 wooden beds, each with a nightstand and trendy lamp positioned at odd angles to avoid seeming institutional. She tucks me in and serves me herbal tea: "Welcome to Tower of Babel. I will return later to tell you when the ritual is over."

This live art-theatre installation was conceived by Dutch artists Lidy Six and Robert Steijn, a full sensory experience they describe as "an age-of-terrorism healing ritual." Easy-listening music mixes with projected images of military complexes spliced with bucolic forests, smiling babies, and whirling dervishes. Once all the beds are taken, 25 men and women file into the room, each taking a seat beside a bed.

They begin to speak, and their voices slowly fill the space until each is telling a story in his or her native language. Danish overlaps with Mandingo, Japanese with Twi and Zulu. It begins as a symphony of sound but quickly rises to a cacophony -- a mess of words familiar to anyone who has spent time at a youth hostel on a Saturday night or a busy open-air market. As I lie on my pillow, I understand nothing, but I feel the compulsion to move closer and listen. Inexplicably, we've formed a powerful connection -- one of vulnerability and active sharing.

But the spell is wrecked once she finishes. My storyteller switches from Cantonese to English, tells me her name (Carrie), and summarizes the story: a tale her grandmother told her about how the animals got their order in the Chinese zodiac. After the magic sensuality of languages, the choice to reveal and make an understandable connection feels trite. Quickly the mundane has seeped back in. The space created for puzzling and nascent discovery has disappeared, and I leave slightly drained and disappointed.

Presented as part of the European Dream Festival by and at Performance Space 122, 150 First Ave., NYC. Sept. 20-23. Remaining performances: Thu., 6, 6:45, 7:30, 8:30, and 9:15 p.m.; Fri., 5, 5:45, 6:30, 8:45, 9:30, 10:15, and 11:15 p.m.; Sat., 5, 5:45, 6:30, 8:45, 9:30, 10:15, and 11:15 p.m. (212) 352-3101 or www.theatermania.com.

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