Off-Broadway Theater Review: COSI (Urban Stages in New York City)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on September 10, 2012

in Theater-New York

IT AIN’T MOZART

Louis Nowra’s Cosi tells the story of Lewis (Adam Zivkovic) a recent college graduate with a theatrical background who gets a job in an insane asylum. There, he find himself directing mental patients in a play adapted from Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto to Mozart’s opera, Cosi Fan Tutte, which deals with issues of fidelity and love. A side plot involving Lewis’ left-wing political activist live-in girlfriend Lucy (Olivia Etzine) and his left-wing political activist roommate Nick (Zach Bubolo) mirrors the themes of Mozart’s opera, but only in theory.

The premise of lunatics putting on a play seems fertile enough, but Mr. Nowra fails to grow anything interesting from it. His dull script suffers from the usual assortment of maladies: low stakes, irrelevant consequences, hazy motivations, predictability, lack of suspense, trivial subtext, trite ideas. Each patient has a scene in which he or she gives their little monologue, explaining, more or less, why they are in the asylum. But these explanations are such pat pseudo-psychological drivel that they feel like filler rather than revelations of any significance. They also have no meaningful relationship to anything else in the play. Themes such as the connection between theater, reality, and insanity—as well as ruminations on sexual fidelity, love, and political activism—are explored so banally it’s difficult not to sigh. There are some clever bits of dialogue and a few legitimate jokes, but without the proper foundation they flounder.

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema review of COSI at Urban Stages in NYCHaving said all that, it might have been possible to make from this material something entertaining. Regrettably Jesse Michael Mothershed’s direction nipped that possibility in the bud. Lacking both energy and imagination, with simplistic, unfocused  blocking, the directing feels uninspired, giving the appearance that Mr. Mothershed does not have a strong personal vision of Cosi; he appears to be directing just what is on the paper, as opposed to inventing a world with the script as the blueprint.

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema review of COSI at Urban Stages in NYCThere is also an irritating lack of attention to detail: a door that squeaks the first two times it’s opened subsequently stops squeaking; a knife that’s described as a switchblade is not; set specifically in 1971 the play does not have a particularly 1971 feel or look. There are a couple of instances of Henry, a near-catatonic average-sized male mental patient, manhandling Nick, a much larger, healthy, athletic-looking young man. This is either a mistake in concept (Nick should have been smaller or Henry much larger) or in execution (the way it’s directed isn’t funny). Either way it doesn’t work.

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema review of COSI at Urban Stages in NYCThe performances are generally uncompelling and vacillate from half-baked to exaggerated to superficial. The actors don’t infuse their characters with real needs, which makes it difficult for us to sympathize with them. The fact that this is uniformly the case suggests that Mr. Mothershed failed to give to the performers, who all appear quite capable, the appropriate guidance (the inmates are Duke Anderson, Kathleen Foster, Mathew Foster, Laura Iris Hill, Stuart Williams, Annie Worden, and Clint Zugel; Joseph Thornhill plays Justin, the asylum administrator).

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema review of COSI at Urban Stages in NYCThere is one remarkable moment in the play when Cherry (Ms. Worden) recites a few lines as Despina, a character from Cosi Fan Tutte. For those few seconds everything shines with drama and suspense; Ms. Worden’s acting, free of the playwright’s and director’s blurry vision, becomes specific, the scene becomes focused, and for that instant we’re watching theater; Despina’s motivations are clear and suddenly a character on stage comes to life. But then Mr. Nowra’s play resumes and we find ourselves wading through mud and fog once again.

Dmitry Zvonkov's Stage and Cinema review of COSI at Urban Stages in NYCChristopher Thompson’s simple yet wonderfully textured set of the asylum theater, though quite nice in and of itself, seems a bit too dreary, even sinister, for the events and themes of this play. David Margolin Lawson’s sound design is rich and crisp (if only a decision could have been made about the door squeaking). Both Greg Solomon’s lighting and Emily Rose Parman’s costumes are serviceable, though what the costumes lack in 70’s-ness they make up for in inventiveness when the lunatics are performing Mozart’s play, dressed in makeshift 1700’s outfits.

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photos by Samir Abady

Cosi
Australian Made Entertainment and Urban Stages in New York City
scheduled to end on September 23, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.urbanstages.org/

{ 3 comments }

Dave September 17, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Dear Dmitry,

I find it interesting that you seem to dislike this play/production so much when the audience I saw it with on opening night LOVED it and even gave it a standing ovation. You clearly missed the mark on this one!

Granted it may not be your cup of tea, but to bash the writer who happens to be an Australian treasure and his play, COSI, which is studied by just about everyone involved in theatre there seems unnecessary. This play is witty and poignant and FUNNY!

As for the directing, again, it may not be what you were hoping for and expecting to see, but it was clear to me that his “vision” was simply to tell the story and I think it did it beautifully.

The cast was uniformly terrific with some standout performances that were rich in character and multi-layered by Annie Worden (as you briefly mentioned), Laura Iris Hill, Stuart Williams, Clint Zugel, and Matt Foster. And I might add that Adam Zivkovic had the arduous task of playing the “straight” guy for the majority of the play, but found a lovely, nuanced arc to his Lewis.

Perhaps you saw the show on an off night and therefore the energy appeared low, but to say the production “lacked energy” seems crazy to me when it was on fire the night I saw it.

I guess I feel you were a bit too harsh and too negative. COSI is a blast and while the subject matter may not be to everyone’s liking, the show is definitely worth seeing. I know I’ve seen a lot worse on Broadway.

Sorry, just thought I’d add my two cents. Better luck on your next review.

Thanks for reading. Have a great day!

Dave

Joe September 21, 2012 at 9:32 am

Wow! You were way off on this one Dmitry. COSI was excellent all around. The acting was incredibly strong and the directing was crisp and tight. The play is not only funny, but HYSTERICAL in parts, as well as poignant, heartwarming, happy and delightful.

Some of the most fun I’ve had at the theater lately, I couldn’t recommend it more!

Joe

Ian September 22, 2012 at 9:22 am

What a mean and dismal review from an obviously jaded old fart. This was a highly enjoyable and funny show.

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