‘Buggy Baby’ & ‘Beginning Days of True Jubilation’

Out of buggy baby, at the Astoria Performing Arts Center.
Photo: Emilio Madrid

The biggest performances in New York these days are in the smallest theaters, where they can push you against the wall and pressure your sense of self-preservation. Actors in big suburban houses (say, Broadway or the Met) cannot invoke the same sense of theatrical claustrophobia, try as they may; certain forces bounce off in tiny spaces that would dissipate in the open air.

One of those tiny spaces is a concrete box beneath the elevated platforms on 23rd Street in Long Island City, newly opened under the auspices of the Astoria Performing Arts Center. Painted a bright pept pink, crammed with all sorts of junk (don’t look behind your seat lest you freak out at how much stuff is balancing on the wall above you), it’s the perfect setting for British playwright Josh Azouz’s horror comedy buggy baby, which requires a certain touch of Dishabille. Azouz’ impoverished immigrant characters are huddled in an abandoned warehouse in London, so both their physical and mental walls must isolate.

Expat director Rory McGregor appears to have chosen Azouz’s play for its chaotic and nightmarish atmosphere, created by visions of bloody seven-foot-tall rabbits threatening audiences and cast. These psychobunnies are all on the mind of Jaden (Hadi Tabbal), whose addiction to a chewable stimulant makes him an unstable member of his desperate household. We see straight away that Jaden has taken on the responsibilities of college student Nur (Rana Ray) and her baby Aya (Erin Neufer, an adult in a baby’s skull-reshaping helmet), but the actual backstory of their addiction, love and… intertwined terror of the British state is taking a while to unfold before us.

Actually describe buggy baby as a horror comedy, as both McGregor and Azouz call it, is a disservice. The hallucinatory “horror” touches lie like twigs over the elephant pit below, which is the far more realistic horror of a woman trying to ignore a man’s increasing unreliability. Why does Jaden sometimes call Aya by his dead wife’s name? Why is the little girl stuck this time? As for the “comedy,” Neufer’s performance as a baby is so compelling that it gets audiences laughing — she’s great at showing worried looks that linger in pride (that’s a full diaper) and arduous focus on important things , like sucking on a water bottle straw. However, all of Neufer’s jokes are a ploy to scare us even more. Soon the rabbits don’t care about us, even as they slam doors and crawl down the hallways. We all know where the real damage is and who will suffer it.

There isn’t much time left to see buggy baby, but you should hurry to catch it. All three actors do an excellent job – Ray has the softest role, so it’s relatively late to realize she’s singing low notes, and Tabbal walks a fine line between the most terrifying and the most tragic element of the show. Together they paint a sensitive, realistic portrait of a relationship steeped in ancient violence (Who fathered Nur’s baby? And who killed him?) that’s too important to fall apart even as it rots. Between her careful understatement, they make way for Neufer’s oversized clown work, her contortionist flair as she folds into her stroller or her plastic bathtub. When I left the show, my memory of her baby Aya only grew until she blocked my ability to enjoy other things. It’s been several days, and I can picture her cooing and vulnerable, holding her arms up for help.

I know the rest of the culture has already seen (or heard or read) a dozen reports of Theranos Clusterfuddle, but I was still happy to see Mona Mansours Beginning days of true jubilation down at the trusty tiny New Ohio Theater. Certainly, if deposed, Mansour will deny any direct connection to Elizabeth Holmes and her box, which accomplished nothing but the episodic comedy’s setup — a charismatic woman at the helm, go-go corporate lingo, a lack of actual value – certainly seems like a portrait. Mansour exaggerates the situation to the point of absurdity, such that their indifferent CEO (Annie Fox) has an office hidden in a sentient(?) maze, but certain other details were ripped fairly directly from the Theranos subpoenas. there can – and I say that in the presence of my attorney — other Silicon Valley parallels as well.

Set designer Brittany Vasta places the audience on the floor and faces the empty wooden booster seats stacked up to the lighting grid. When Fox appears to her acolyte servants, she stands atop this ziggurat, and her followers charge up and down the massive, impassable stairways, frantically for her favor. In brief scenes they also dance (Britney’s “Work Bitch” makes her bounce) and jockey for an advantage, making each other cry because they couldn’t think of a cool new name for the break room, for example. The 14-strong cast is packed with majestic, unflappable guys (Rosa Gilmore, Jennifer Mogbock, Shayvawn Webster, Alex Templer) and gifted, panicked clowns (Brian Bock again, Caroline Grogan, Alex Templer), so there’s plenty of comic fodder for everyone their hierarchy games.

days is half of a double bill from The Society, a collective that’s the brainchild of Mansour, director Scott Illingworth and a cadre of actors who use the Joint Stock method of exploratory workshops and writer-led creation to make shows. (The other production on repeat is that of Emily Zemba The strangers came today I haven’t seen it.) The most famous product of the joint stock technique is Caryl Churchill’s 1979 play cloud 9, and the process produces, as it has since the ’70s, a dense, imaginative demeanor brimming with physical invention and text that fits right in with the company’s gifts. (It’s like a parade of the skill sections from their resumes: foreign languages, pantomime, dance, the works.) Several of Illingworth’s staging choices, including a mass interview sequence in which the actors hold up cellphone videos of their mouths, are striking, especially those who turn the CEO’s company into a chorus.

Given the hopeless trajectory of the start-up’s inevitable demise, the play becomes predictable, and ensuring that all 14 performers each have a moment in the spotlight has its own delaying effect – one of the friction points of the stock method. There is therefore a small drop in energy right at the crunch. But the main impression left days belongs to a group that believes in processes rather than a product. In Silicon Valley, that kind of means-justifies-the-end thinking would be a red flag, but when you find that stormy, process-oriented passion in a theatrical collective, it’s gold at the end of the rainbow. The magic of starting a business is too rare these days because it requires the kind of vigorous effort and lengthy rehearsals that many artists can’t afford. Yet here we find more than a dozen of the best actors in town, each giving space to the other and investing every part of themselves. They’re throwing good money (and their own good lives) at something unspeakable, and that kind of investment in the blue skies sometimes pays off wild and beautiful.

buggy baby is at the Astoria Performing Arts Center through June 26th.

Beginning days of true jubilation plays in repetition The strangers came today at the New Ohio Theater through June 25.

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