Top Pair: Upstream and Mustard Seed add up to a winning weekend of theater

Feb 3, 2010 at 4:00 am

This week's two new theater offerings don't waste your time. At Upstream Theater's The Double Bass, we spend a brisk 75 minutes inside the mind of a symphony musician; Fires in the Mirror at Mustard Seed Theatre chronicles the tumultuous 1991 race riots in Brooklyn in just 65 minutes. But because neither intermissionless performance squanders so much as a sentence, and because every single line has something to tell us, both evenings are rewarding. No one should leave either theater feeling shortchanged at having been sent home early.

And yet Mustard Seed has shortchanged the text of Fires in the Mirror. Anna Deavere Smith's kaleidoscopic account of a riot in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn usually lasts 90 minutes, so apparently nearly one-third of the text has been omitted. Evidently we're being presented with an edited "best parts" version. What do we miss? Probably more of the same. Just as too many words can dilute the impact of a lengthy play, that also can be true of a shorter work. In this spare but cogent production, the power of simplicity is on stunning display.

The background: On a summer evening in August 1991, a three-car, police-escorted motorcade carrying the leader of a local Hasidic sect was speeding through the area. The third car fell behind. When it attempted to catch up, the 22-year-old driver swerved out of control, killing a 7-year-old black child who was playing in front of his own home. It is a classic story, unnervingly similar to the one Charles Dickens describes in A Tale of Two Cities when the carriage of Monsieur the Marquee strikes an anonymous child on a Paris street. In Dickens' novel, the child's needless death is one of countless incidents that eventually lead to revolution. But in Brooklyn the response was much more swift. Within hours, a mob of angry black teens killed an innocent Jewish college student in reprisal. Thus began three days of race riots in which blacks targeted Jewish homes. The New York City police were essentially impotent to stop the looting and burning.

Out of this cacophony, Anna Deavere Smith crafted a one-person evening of monologues, based on interviews she conducted in the immediate aftermath with various participants. Smith performed Fires in the Mirror at New York's Public Theatre in 1992, then later that same year traveled cross-country to compose a similar play, Twilight: Los Angeles, that documents the fiery aftermath of the Rodney King trial and verdict.

This Mustard Seed staging, impeccably directed by Lori Adams, is very much focused on division. The production divides the monologues between two actresses, Michelle Hand and Rory Lipede. Amid the rubble of the unit set designed by Courtney Sanazaro, there are two television monitors at opposite ends of the stage. It's almost as if even the monitors take sides, in terms of what information is imparted on their screens.

Throughout the compelling evening we hear from a wide spectrum of voices. There are those who want to objectify the riots to the distant level of a "conflict." Then there are those whose voices are veritable Wurlitzer organs as they decry the rage that justified the rioting. Still others parse phrases like "malicious intent." (We're told that because the black child was killed without malicious intent and the Jewish scholar was killed with malicious intent, his death is the more tragic.) A representative of Louis Farrakhan casually dismisses the Holocaust. How does the death of 6 million Jews over six years, he rhetorically asks, stack up against the plight of more than 100 million black slaves killed, murdered or raped over 300 years? "The hatred is so deep-seated," a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council avers, and surely no one on either side would dispute that.

Both actresses are wonderfully versatile. As they re-create black and white, male and female, young and old, each is at the top of her game. Not enough can be said about their work. But even as we sit enthralled, listening and absorbing, we also are reminded of the limitations of art. By the end of this brief but draining evening, the cauldron of anger is reduced to a lingering sadness — and part of that sadness comes from the awareness that even the best-intended art cannot change things. The most art can hope for is heightened awareness. But awareness usually doesn't last very long. Which is why whenever the next outrage occurs, it's the artists who must come in and try yet again to bring some clarity to the muddle.

Although there's nothing in his biography to suggest that German author Patrick Suskind tape-recorded conversations with musicians in the same way that Smith interviewed the Crown Heights participants, The Double Bass resonates with the same authenticity as does Fires in the Mirror — though perhaps the stakes are not so lofty. Our narrator, portrayed by J. Samuel Davis, is an unnamed 35-year-old double bass player in a major symphony orchestra. Every single word Davis utters has the ring of truth to it, as if real musicians actually told these things to Suskind. And there are many truths here, as Davis follows a trajectory that leads him from pride to frustration to despair.

"The double bass is far and away the most important instrument in the orchestra," we're grandly told at the outset. "Nothing functions without us." (Forget classical music. Where, we're asked, would Jaws be without the double bass?) There's more: "An orchestra without a double bass is inconceivable. It is the essential orchestral instrument." But by evening's end, the double bass is exposed as "more an obstacle than an instrument." In time, the musician confides his unrequited love for a soprano named Sarah to whom he's never spoken. His life is a torment. He knows that he can never woo her with his talent, for he cannot play a single note on the double bass that she can sing.

And that's pretty much the gist of it. As invisibly directed by Philip Boehm, The Double Bass appears to be an evening of modest ambitions. There is some talk about how an orchestra is an image of society, but the script doesn't belabor that analogy. There's also an eerie sense at one point that the ubiquitous double bass might assume its own spooky life, the way ventriloquist's dummies become real in scary films like Dead of Night and Magic. But that too proves to be the sort of ruse more in the mind of the viewer than in the text.

We're left with a story of passion, and passion stifled, yet this passion is channeled through a character of supreme civility. Because J. Samuel Davis is one of the most affable actors in town, it's easy to feel empathy for both Davis and his alter ego. After an atypical outburst, the musician veritably apologizes by saying, "I need to monitor my tone." It's character-driven lines like that which remind us that stories about unrequited love are a dime a dozen, but stories about unrequited musicians are not so common. "A beautiful voice has an intelligence about it," Davis tells us. It's the intelligence that gives The Double Bass its voice.