Criticizing the work of notoriously esoteric writer Mac Wellman for being too incomprehensible may sound like I’m missing the point entirely.
But unlike with a majority of his previous, deliberately linguistically-confounding plays, he’s not personally responsible for the version of A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds currently running Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop through February 11. Instead, Elena Araoz adapted from his collection of the same name two original short stories — one in each act, both delivered as monologues underscored by sonically-distinct music courtesy of a live band surrounding the small, elevated stage, nicely complementing his bizarro fictional worlds (which suffer from the same problems as our own, a staple of quality sci-fi).
Though Araoz brings a certain stylish panache to her direction of the production, she does not maintain the same control over the text, failing to translate his literary words into a sufficiently theatrical dramatic vernacular. Confusion will always be on the menu when dealing with a Big Mac (Wellman) meal, but when he’s the one putting pen to paper, his experimentations with different forms of language-based communication — made up jargon and all — normally (though there’s nothing normal about them) take flight onstage. Despite some dynamic lighting — quickly becoming a signature of NYTW’s first Next Door season — and game performances by Anastasia Olowin and Timothy Siragusa, the barrage of words clearly intended to be read instead of verbally/aurally transmitted cannot manage to hold the audience’s interest nor attention.
Overall, the whole ordeal pales in comparison to Ethan Lipton’s too-similar, one-man + band, cosmologically-minded musical The Outer Space, produced by the Public Theater last year. At least A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Names is a superior title to Lipton’s on-the-nose choice, which, in addition to obviously setting the scene, also commented on the fringe internal existence of its lonely outsiders. But A Chronicle of the Madness of Small Worlds more vividly describes the claustrophobic madness of worlds made small from a lack of diversity (on the negative side, the name is also a testament to how the show feels excessively verbose). If only the actual production delivered such profound thoughts in as coherent a fashion.
When the best part of a 105-minute evening can be read on the Playbill, it’s safe to say that New York Theatre Workshop has made a rare misstep.