Who knew iniquity could feel so pulsating and immensely purifying?
“Seven Deadly Sins,” New York City theater’s newest unholy outdoor experience, tests the limits of how far live theater can go amidst a global pandemic. Originally conceived by Michel Hausmann and marvelously directed by Moisés Kaufman, the show, dramatizing the seven most prominent vices in a collection of short plays, has taken over vacant storefronts in the Meatpacking District — and it’s a purposeful choice. Before the vibrant Manhattan neighborhood bustled with swanky hotels, Michelin star restaurants and high-end retail shops, kinksters and deviants filled the streets of the district, unabashed and free. The area was formerly popular for sex-laden BDSM, trans and gay nightlife that would make a devout Catholic pray for saving grace. Attendees at “Seven Deadly Sins” experience just a taste of the district’s seductive past.
After audience members arrive at the pop-up box office, they are divided into three groups and led to seats in the middle of a barricaded street to begin the iniquitous experience. The show commences in purgatory, a spiritual place of limbo between Heaven’s gates and the terrestrial. Mistress of ceremonies Shuga Cain, draped in a dazzling silver papal tiara and robe reminiscent of one of Rihanna’s Met Gala looks, marches out swinging a gold censer to cleanse the (outdoor) space of any negative energies. After all, we are a bunch of sinners waiting to hear our fate.
Our emcee does, however, point out that each of the seven sins — envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath — is born out of love. “Envy arises from the love of what others have, Gluttony comes from the distorted love of food, lust from the greedy love of carnal pleasures…” she recites. After provocatively stripping into a burlesque-style bodysuit hidden underneath her robe, she lip syncs for her life to Pistol Annies’s “I Feel a Sin Comin’ On,” reminding us why she was a fan favorite on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” She then sends us on our way.
Each of the seven sins inspire short plays by a diverse group of nationally recognized, award-winning playwrights: Ngozi Anyanwu (“Tell Me Everything You Know,” gluttony), Thomas Bradshaw (“Hard,” sloth), MJ Kaufman (“Wild Pride,” pride), Moisés Kaufman (“Watch,” greed), Jeffery LaHoste (“Naples,” envy), Ming Peiffer (“Longhorn,” wrath), and Bess Wohl (“Lust,” lust). In seamless rotation, groups of up to 22 theatergoers are led by tour guides around a span of four blocks, with audience members listening through assigned headphones to both the guides on the street and the actors in the storefront windows. Actors perform each 10-minute play safely behind glass, keeping them guarded from maskless patrons but close enough to feel intimate.
With these seven plays, no subject is off limits and no body part is left sacred. Some of the stories are not for the faint at heart, and some will resonate with an intimate part of you. For me, Wohl’s “Lust” served as pièce de resistance of “Seven Deadly Sins.” The last play in my evening’s rotation vocalizes the thoughts of an exotic dancer (Donna Carnow) as she performs in front of her abuser. The dancer never visibly speaks. Her flawlessly choreographed moves are in sync with her profound thoughts (voiced by Cynthia Nixon) and her fluid body. The dancer’s story never falls into despair; instead, Carnow reveals true vulnerability and courage in a masterfully mesmerizing performance. David Rockwell’s set design, almost bare, includes a single silver dancing pole, purple curtains that served as a backdrop, two full-length mirrors and single dollar bills strewn across the floor. I became so captivated by the dancer’s performance that I almost forgot I was outside.
The problem with outdoor theater, of course, is that it’s outdoors. While patrons are equipped with top-of-the-line Sony stereo headphones, they don’t completely silence the sounds of New York City: the occasional honking horn, blast of music or loud bystander. “Seven Deadly Sins” also runs rain or shine, so attendees better pray that the weather is dry.
But cons aside, Seven Deadly Sins is a well-curated, innovative theatrical experience. The show stretches the limits of traditional performance and explores what can be done once live theater is resurrected.