A two-character play in which the costar is played by a different guest actor every performance? A guest actor who has neither read nor seen the play, nor met the star/author/co-director until just before the audience files in? Sounds like a treacherous theatrical trick to pull off. Tim Crouch has contrived a stage entertainment that does just that. “An Oak Tree” is a fascinating slice of unconventional theater that will keepthe audience intrigued long after the final curtain.
The play’s guest actor (or actress) is walking into the unknown; any preparation — reading the script, for example — would necessarily ruin the effect. Crouch gives instructions while the audience is listening, whispers other directions into a microphone that connects with a set of earphones worn by the guest, and sometimes gives the guest a few lines of dialogue on a clipboard. That’s it. No improvisation, no untoward tricks or cheap surprises.
The guest comes in knowing only the setup: The grief-stricken father of a girl who has been killed in an automobile accident confronts the provincial stage hypnotist (Crouch) who was driving the car. Given the novelty of the proceedings, it’s amazing Crouch actually gets a strong performance out of the guest.
At the perf reviewed, actor-playwright Charles Busch was the guinea pig. Busch has a naturally funny presence, but as the action progressed, he gave an effective and at times commanding performance — without, mind you, knowing what he was expected to say or do.
Other guests through opening have included F. Murray Abraham, Reed Birney and James Urbaniak, with Steve Blanchard, Laurie Anderson, Laila Robins and Austin Pendleton slated for the open-ended run. One expects more names to follow as word spreads. While this is perhaps an unsettling prospect — working without knowing your lines, receiving direction in front of a paying audience — it must be a wild and exhilarating ride for the performer.
Production is spare, with Crouch bringing eight chairs, a piano bench, and some sound equipment onto the set of the Barrow Street Theater’s other current tenant, “No Child.” The shared stage necessitates an unconventional performance schedule.
Englishman Crouch has previously been represented here with “My Arm,” which played 59E59 and the Public. A commanding presence in black with a rather hypnotic-looking vest, he takes full control of the stage. Crouch presents himself to the audience as the playwright; as the character; as the director; and as the director giving direction to the guest (both audible and private). The guest appears as himself (or herself); as the character; and as himself commenting on the action (sometimes genuine reactions, at other times reading from a prepared script.) As is typical in tales of hypnotists, the lines at some point cross between master and subject.
When Crouch and his guest get deeply into it — who is speaking here, anyway? — the puzzle becomes more than tantalizing. Different, unusual and unexpected, “An Oak Tree” is an intriguing tightrope-walk of a play.