Sometimes truth is such an elusive eel that it takes all of our senses, and many perspectives, to flush it out of hiding. And sometimes it only takes a snappy, humorous song or two to focus our examination of what’s real. Theatre Too’s uneven, yet sprightly production of Michael John LaChiusa’s musical investigation of verity, See What I Wanna See, uses its second sight to finish strong.
The first act centers on a murder of a wife’s husband in Central Park in 1951 retold from the perspectives of various characters/witnesses. The story is familiar to those acquainted with Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon because, like the Japanese filmmaker, LaChiusa uses the short stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa (as translated by Takashi Kojima) as inspiration. He also incorporates the movie into the plot: the crime in question takes place on the night of its New York premiere.
Jennifer Noth as the wife is a femme fatale with sparkling beauty, defined expressions and bushels of sultry attitude. Her instrument of passion is the thief (Daylon Walton) who’s straight out of Brooklyn casting with slicked back hair that matches the polish of his cheesy television reporter in the second act.
Despite the attempt at perspective play, the opening half of the play is problematic, a bit confused, sluggish, and disjointed, and there are few memorable songs except for the title tune. The short prologues before each act set in medieval Japan, although pretty to look at (costumes by Michael Robinson), stick out and do not further the narrative.
The second half of the play, set in 2002, delivers some toe-tapping redemption in its story of a shell-shocked priest (Ashley Wood) seeking to regain his faith by creating a faux miracle event in the park. Wood’s razor sharp performance as an introspective man of the cloth with a “solemn veneer” signals the high point of the play.
Disillusionment reigns in the search for a new reality in a post 9/11 world. Jackie L. Kemp plays a crazy street person who was a former CPA glowers with fervor. Jennifer Noth’s corrupting, coke-ridden actress struts with movie star purpose, and Amy Mills as the priest’s socialist, atheist Aunt Monica is a feisty hoot.
It is a pleasure to see Jac Alder’s nifty direction of the triumphant second act transcend the morass of the sleepy first one. Alder has a nuanced eye for matching the space and clever, utilitarian set design to the action. He allows the actors to commit to their roles with earnest gusto. The play is back-loaded in quality, but well worth the wait.
Image: Jackie L. Kemp and Jennifer Noth (Credit: Ken Birdsell)