Review: ‘The Argument & Dinner Party’

It's hard to know exactly what to think about Target Margin's double bill of "The Argument" and "Dinner Party," and that's as it should be. The former is David Greenspan's one-man show adapted from Aristotle's "Poetics," while the latter is a company-created riff on "Symposium," Plato's seminal treatise on love. Both classic texts have been endlessly critiqued, but the creatives here aren't interested in which interpretation is superior. Instead, they evince the passion, humor and theatricality that make us want to keep analyzing these works. Rather than telling us what to think, the production encourages us to think, proving that wrestling with ideas can be incredibly entertaining.

It’s hard to know exactly what to think about Target Margin’s double bill of “The Argument” and “Dinner Party,” and that’s as it should be. The former is David Greenspan’s one-man show adapted from Aristotle’s “Poetics,” while the latter is a company-created riff on “Symposium,” Plato’s seminal treatise on love. Both classic texts have been endlessly critiqued, but the creatives here aren’t interested in which interpretation is superior. Instead, they evince the passion, humor and theatricality that make us want to keep analyzing these works. Rather than telling us what to think, the production encourages us to think, proving that wrestling with ideas can be incredibly entertaining.

After a touching performance this spring in Terrence McNally’s sentimental gay-history play “Some Men,” Greenspan now proves he’s as nimble with philosophy as he is with emotion. He crafts an incisive script for “The Argument,” which also interpolates work by scholar Gerald Else. Those who don’t know “Poetics” will receive a clear summary of its major ideas on tragedy, while more seasoned students are invited to argue with Greenspan’s sly comments on everything from catharsis to Aeschylus.

That might sound dreadfully highbrow, but it isn’t. For one, Greenspan writes in modern, accessible language. And he performs the text with enough supple emotion to sweep any audience away.

Working with director (and Target Margin a.d.) David Herskovits, thesp carries his voice from thundering declarations to rapturous murmurs, speaking each word with a clear sense of understanding. He makes everything sound crucial.

And this isn’t some arty sheen laid over a stodgy text. Greenspan’s passion works because it’s justified by the words. When he leans forward, body bent in a combination of ecstasy and suffering, and whispers that the greatest tragedy creates pity and fear for a hero who has committed a crime by mistake, his commitment makes visceral sense. “The Poetics” explains why humans love drama, so of course it should inspire feeling itself.

The other crucial element of Greenspan’s perf is his sinuous movement. He punctuates phrases with mannered sweeps of his hand or with snaking arms that recall modern dance. Used sparingly, these flourishes give “The Argument” mystique. They remind us even the greatest words can’t articulate everything that’s beautiful about tragedy. We might get close, but we will never fully grasp its power — and that keeps us coming back.

“Dinner Party” thrives on a similar intellectual tease. Combining improvisation with scholarship, Herskovits and his actor-writers (including Greenspan in a small role) insist we can know versions of the truth but can never grasp it absolutely.

Absolutes are key to Plato’s philosophy, of course, and that’s borne out in the show. Each cast member stands up at the titular party to deliver a speech on the true nature of love. They all make good points, but they all miss something. They simultaneously tell the truth and a lie.

The production only presses the issue. The actors all use their own names, but are clearly not playing themselves. A large painting on the back wall resembles the scene before us — same number of people, same breakdown of gender and race, same seating arrangement around a dinner table. But it isn’t quite the same. The chairs in the painting are a little different. The real people never quite strike the same poses as those on the canvas.

You could go mad from thinking about the inaccuracies. But the playful spirit of “Dinner Party,” which makes ample room for bawdy jokes and dance breaks, suggests we shouldn’t worry. No argument or representation can be entirely correct, but they all can help nudge us toward enlightenment. We decide for ourselves which ones speak to us with most authenticity.

The Argument & Dinner Party

The Kitchen; 155 seats; $15 top

Production

A Kitchen presentation in association with Target Margin Theater of two one-act plays. "The Argument" by David Greenspan, adapted from Aristotle's "Poetics" and the writings of Gerald Else. "Dinner Party" created by the company, adapted from Plato's "Symposium." Directed by David Herskovits.

Creative

Sets, Sarah Edkins; costumes, Asta Bennie Hostetter; lighting, Lenore Doxsee; sound, Jane Shaw; dramaturg, Kathleen Kennedy Tobin; production stage manager, Arienne Pelletier. Opened June 16, 2007. Reviewed June 14. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast

Aristotle, David - David Greenspan
With: Han Nah Kim, Diana Konopoka, Mary Neufeld, Steven Rattazzi, Greig Sargeant, Stephanie Weeks, Ian Wen.
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