Open: 12/30/08- Close: 02/13/09
Reviewed for TheaterOnline.com By: Lauren Wissot
Jocelyn Gonzales ©2017
Riding the subway down to the Lower East Side to catch a performance of The Living Theatre's 50th anniversary production of Jack Gelber's The Connection I happened to glance over the shoulder of a man seated to my left who was reading a book, specifically a chapter on "making connections." Considering The Living Theatre's mission statement contains the proclamation "to move from the theater to the street and from the street to the theater" that chance encounter was perhaps inevitable. For The Living Theatre has always been less a theater company than a flesh-and-blood philosophy based on humanity's global connection (over half a century before that idea became downgraded to Internet buzzwords), a way of living infused with the firm belief that artistic passion can be a catalyst to provoking positive change.
So it's interesting that The Connection is at its core a play about mankind's inability to make meaningful connections, the need to substitute addiction to fill that void. The plot is straightforwardly simple - a group of junkies wait in a room for their connection Cowboy to arrive with their fix. Only they're being paid to sit around since they're being filmed for a movie about their lives - i.e., exploited like freaks in a sideshow - which allows for numerous interruptions by two cameramen, a playwright and the play's director. Add to this another layer in the form of a live jazz band (that includes Ren¸ McLean, son of jazz great Jackie McLean who was in the original production) that breaks the tension of waiting with thrilling jam sessions, and what seems a monotonous conceit suddenly makes for riveting theater.
Jocelyn Gonzales ©2017
While the original production featured the likes of Martin Sheen and James Earl Jones, the only legend onstage this time around is director Judith Malina herself who portrays the pious Sister Salvation. But the cast does include members of the (2007 Obie-winning) ensemble of Ken Brown's The Brig, all of whom are surprisingly good considering The Connection is as dialogue-heavy as The Brig is physically demanding. In fact, they're almost too good, and by this I mean that they're nearly too polished, too professional - dare I say it? - too sane. Years ago when I was with the company there was always at least one loose cannon who couldn't be fully trusted not to do something completely wacky to upend a performance, lending a sense of risk to every show. At the time this lack of professionalism infuriated me, and yet this very element of danger, of anything-can-happen spontaneity, is a key ingredient to a play like The Connection - a necessary threat.
Jocelyn Gonzales ©2017
For the very reason The Connection was so groundbreaking fifty years ago had much to do with its shock value. The audience was never quite sure if the actors and musicians were actors and musicians playing junkies or junkies who happened to be actors and musicians. The line between reality and fiction, the street and the theater, had been blurred. And just like The Living Theatre's new home on Clinton Street is neighbor to fancy galleries and boutiques (as opposed to the dusty bodega next door to the squat across the street from their former space on Avenue C), the space inside the theater, including the production's sparse set and soft lighting, mirrors this atmosphere of cleanliness and safety. Even jazz, the very essence of improvisation, of unpredictability, is now mainstream and tame. A part of me longed for the uncomfortable, the primal violence of Artaud.
And yet The Connection is still highly relevant - if not more so - today. Now our addictions include not just the old illegal standards (repackaged in legal pharmaceutical industry form), but also that very camera that records the junkies waiting for their high. From reality TV to Facebook we're addicted to confessing, to being seen - every hour, every minute, night and day. We've come full circle; the camera is our heroin. This latest production of The Connection is a strong faithful recreation - but is a strong faithful recreation what the world needs here and now? When The Connection first opened, its combination stage play/faux film shoot/live jam session was ahead of its time. Couldn't an update (employing new technology) make it ahead of its time again? This thought crossed my mind as I made my way home from the theater, passing two of my Polish neighborhood's drunks who bid me goodnight. For the first time all evening I felt uneasy. Probably because these men knew better than I the meaning of Cowboy's line, "Can't find out anything about anything just by flirting with it."
Living Theatre : 21 Clinton Street