In the Met Theater’s production of first-time playwright Christian Jon Meoli’s dramedy “The Dadaists,” the spirited actors, representing writers, artists and musicians who performed at Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire, pounce on their parts like starving animals tearing into a fresh piece of meat. By sheer will they portray the art movement’s chaotic response to snobbish, traditional artistic boundaries. What’s lacking is a sense that these Dada pioneers were genuinely gifted. The comic and musical cabaret routines also interfere with undeveloped personal plotlines, and it’s hard not to think of an observation by cast member Dr. Walter Serner (Tucker Smallwood): “I expected more from your cabaret than this gibberish.”
Shane Guffogg’s set features 12 toilets, six on either side of the stage. As characters sit on them, awaiting their turn to participate, we encounter Emmy (Allison Gammon), a poet and performer who has fled from Nazi Germany to Zurich. Emmy spends much of her time agonizing about her relationship with author Hugo Ball (Joe Fria). The stumbling block is her lust for other lovers or, as the script puts it, the need to screw a butcher now and then. This tendency troubles Ball, but he’s frequently preoccupied by the horror of Nazi atrocities and debates heatedly with writer-artist Richard Huelsenbeck (Jason Waters), a violent activist who deliberately goads and irritates people.
A more arresting personality is Tristan Tzara (Kai Lennox), Romanian poet and essayist, who founded Dada with Ball. The story doesn’t provide much personal insight into Tzara, beyond his penchant for shocking people, yet Lennox, an amazingly adventurous actor (who bears a striking resemblance to photographs of the real Tzara), brings the Cabaret Voltaire alive with his audacity, boyishness, defiance and despair.
Waters’ Huelsenbeck puts across the requisite rage and venom, despite being forced to utter such whoppers as “You do it with a song in your heart, I do it with fire in my ass.” Huelsenbeck’s battles with Ball have drive but would be more persuasive if director Harris Mann didn’t force Waters and Fria into screaming, volcanic frenzies. Fria excels in the quieter scenes, but the actors hurl themselves on the floor too frequently, and their eruptions are more distracting than dramatic.
As Dr. Serner, Smallwood underplays beautifully, even maintaining an actor’s smoothness and control as he shouts, “A dog is a hammock … art is dead” during his masturbation scene. Eric Riviera exhibits a notable flair for physical comedy, and Philip Sokoloff exudes authority as the club’s owner.
Negotiating through speeches either pompous (“Is ego connecting us or separating us?”) or purple (“Your elocution reminds me of gonorrhea”), some of the period flavor manages to emerge. Costumes by Beth Morgan and Ann Mugford are impressively authentic, and Andrea Housh’s lighting helps to maintain clarity. Since Dada is remembered primarily for its enduring works of art that opened the door to surrealism, classic reproductions by Duchamp, Arp or Man Ray might have been utilized onstage to illustrate the results of so much angst.
Although “The Dadaists” is carried along by Meoli’s intense feeling for his material, it cries for cutting and reorganization and fails to weave plot and characters together. The production gives us flamboyant theatrics, without the vital, telling details needed to view its legendary artists as real people.