By Eduardo Machado
Directed by Michael Domitrovich
Theater for the New City
Through April 13
Why do so many of us keep coming back to people who constantly minimize and invalidate us? Worship, Eduardo Machado’s one-act mini-epic about the theater world, has about as many answers as it has characters. We see the madness unleashed by romantic jealousy, the heartbreak of career success distributed unevenly among friends and lovers. As the driving force, though, we see a deliciously over-the-top cult of personality around a larger-than-life playwright, Estelle, who has mentored a whole cohort of theater professionals over the course of her career, and the play begins with her imminent death from advanced Alzheimer’s bringing them together again.
What follows is an absorbing assemblage of flashback, character study and hypnotic Greek choruses that really makes us wish we could meet Estelle and some of her acolytes personally, however exasperating all of them can be. You don’t really need to get all of the play’s in-jokes about the theater world to appreciate what it is saying about cliquish groups, cults of personality and the interpersonal nonsense they perpetuate.
Crystal Field is delightful as the leader of the group. Her slow, grandiose waver as she makes pronouncements about how famed playwright Henrik Ibsen secretly hated women, how evil must always enter from stage left and how you’ll never create great art whoring yourself out to such-and-such bourgeois foundation will remind you of every pompous humanities professor you’ve ever rolled your eyes at. Taken on its own, the performance was believable. I might have liked to see more of her moments of true tenderness and vulnerability, the intimacy with her protégés that hooked them when they were young and hungry for approval and that kept them coming back for more highs (and more hangovers).
As for the students, the character of Otto (an affectingly wound-up Hugh Sinclair) is established early as the black sheep of the group. He never quite manages to swallow all of the Kool-Aid the others are drinking, but, in his own poignant and paradoxical way, he might be the most devoted follower of all. Heather Velazquez plays Laura, the one who made it bigger than anyone else (including Estelle — oh dread!), and radiates sensual magnetism and uncompromising youthful passion. Of all the pathological enmeshings portrayed in the show, these three characters seem to suffer the most (though, of course, the students must bear a bigger burden than their dear leader; could it really be otherwise?). It’s worth mentioning that, while the show focuses on these three and the dynamics between them, the rest of the performers carry off some wonderfully subtle shifts in age and attitude. In a flashback where most of them are meeting Estelle for the first time, the way they sit and move makes them absolutely convincing as eager, untested twentysomethings.
The set, mostly a suite of basic shapes in black and white, is gorgeous. Laura, who we find out early on killed herself out of despair from a combination of pressures, lights frequently atop a ghostly platform, shrouded by a gauze of white curtain, and shares the great messages of these characters’ collective saga. This is how Laura conceives of Estelle. This is what Estelle taught Laura personally. This, again, is a warning against the group’s various follies, which ultimately helped push her over the edge. Meanwhile, two large, movable walls covered in pleated white cloth are used to suggest changes in the setting, and long papery strips hang like a forest on both sides of the stage, sometimes fluttering with a chilly wind in outdoor scenes. It is stark and sumptuous at the same time, hinting at how the characters allow themselves to be consumed by suffering because the exquisite, warming beauty of their art is worth it.
A nice touch, if it was intentional, was the subtle cues in the dialogue about how social attitudes evolve and become more nuanced, along with these specific characters’ evolving concept of themselves. In this group of artists, multiple characters are bisexual or at least questioning their sexuality. However, it’s striking to observe the character development: We see a particular character speaking of bisexuality as something that some people can’t handle (but that, presumably, she can) — and later, in a flashback scene, appearing highly skeptical that that orientation exists at all.
Worship can be a heavy, even depressing play. It will remind many viewers of their less pleasant interpersonal experiences. What impressed me most was the overall effect that settled in once it was over: the quiet urgency with which the play seems to insist that it’s still worth it to make something memorable; it’s still worth dealing with the posers and ass-kissers, the know-it-alls and users (some of whom we can avoid, but never all). I still wanted to keep making things that people after me could remember, even after this sobering reminder. See how you feel.