Miracle of Moby and Memory; Improv Can’t Grow Sea Legs

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the theater the other night. I went to the wrong theater. It’s the fickle finger of Fate. But it’s never happened to me before. I was glad, though.

Better to stumble across a small masterpiece than to head for a big disappointment. That’s what I always say! I had somehow gone to Lafayette Street instead of to the Jane Street Theatre, where I was to see Lifegame , a British import that’s entirely improvised. Very, very dangerous thing, improvisation. Anything can happen.

There were only a few minutes to go before the start of And God Created Great Whales , originally produced by the Foundry Theatre and playing at the Culture Project, so I thought it best to improvise and go in. I’d heard good things about it, anyway (with a few of the usual thumbs down). Though the intimate theater space was packed, they found me a seat and I felt in luck.

“This looks a bit weird,” I found myself thinking at the sight of a big, shaved-headed man in a crumpled suit slumped, apparently depressed, at a piano onstage that was tied up with rigging, like cargo lashed to a ship. “But you never know …”

Post-Its had been stuck all over the battered piano with feverish notes to Self, and many light bulbs hung from the ceiling. And it turned out that the desolate Beckettian apparition at the piano with an old-fashioned tape recorder hung round his neck was composing an opera of Moby Dick , but he couldn’t remember what he was doing. He didn’t even seem to know where he was.

Well, I could identify with that. “Today you will continue work on your version of Moby Dick ,” instructs the tape. And the forgetful composer, known as Nathan (played by Rinde Eckert, who wrote the music and the script), suddenly remembers, exclaiming, “Oh!” as if a light bulb went off.

A feathery figure (the gifted Nora Cole) also appears as an imaginary Muse. I know . And Mr. Eckert certainly knows: All imaginary Muses are invariably arty. But, to my relief, I didn’t find it to be the pretentious case here. Mr. Eckert plays a composer as mad as Melville and Ahab, but he possesses a very appealing sense of humor. He sees the funny side of chaos and creation.

“What are you doing ?” the Muse objects, when Nathan goes off on a furious musical tangent at the piano. He offers a lame explanation. “You were stuck ,” she says emphatically-a Muse not to be messed with.

“This is a story of?” she asks, like a schoolmarm reminding the dunce in the class of the obvious.

“A man alone,” he replies. “Or with others.”

And God Created Great Whales proved to be a wonderful performance piece-at just 75 minutes in length, a brilliant fragmentary trip into Melville and memory. Mr. Eckert creates an emotional intensity and connection missing from Laurie Anderson’s epic version of the impossibly epic Moby Dick last season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In his apparently eccentric way, he can conjure up the spookiness of visions in the thunder of the sermon on Jonah, and in the ecstatic terror of the last quest for the unknowable great white whale.

He parodies opera conventions and Melville’s notion of masculinity. He’ll sing a little sea shanty as if improvised on the spot with the delight of a child. But Mr. Eckert lives on the dangerous edge where boredom has been banished, and his artistry possesses a lovely, tender soul. The lyrical close of the piece is a perfect union of creator and inspiration, a duet in near sentimentality. But when Ahab’s great storm ends-”as the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled 5,000 years ago”-Mr. Eckert’s Nathan sits alone, as if bent under the weight of his own shroud, a wreck drowned in ignorance and infinity. The tape tells him, in memorable, chilling finality: “If you are still listening, it is too late.”

End game.

All About Don

What good luck to catch by accident such mighty things in a small room. But what regret in dutiful conscience! I went conscientiously the following night to the improvised fun-and-games of Lifegame at the Jane Street Theatre (where Hedwig of beloved memory played). Its gimmick is that the seven members from England’s well-regarded Improbable Theatre troupe act out the life story of a pre-selected volunteer who’s interviewed onstage. The volunteer-obviously an extremely shy and retiring person-answers the questions as if appearing on a talk show, and the performers spontaneously create little improvisations based on the story as if they’re playing charades. Having fun so far?

On the night I attended, we got to hear and see the life story told by Don, a general manager of a restaurant by the name of Nadine’s in the West Village, where it gets awful hot in the kitchen.

Sample question and answer: “What do you do?” “I’m the general manager of a restaurant by the name of Nadine’s in the West Village.” “Do you have a philosophy of life?” “Well … you get back from life what you put in.” (The interviewer wrote that carefully on the blackboard, a motif for the evening.) Don was born in Indiana, where his home was burnt down by an accidental fire when he was 5, but it seemed to be no big deal to Don (nor did it in the improvised re-creation). “Tell us about your dad, Don.” Don’s dad worked for a tomato-canning company; he was closer to his mum, who had “a big personality.” Also, Don forgot to mention that he used to have a stammer. (New improv of him with stammer.) “Do you remember when it stopped, Don?”

“What were you like at the dinner table-just in a few words, you know?” went another question. “I was a big eater.” “How would meal time end?” “My sister Deirdre and I went back and forth doing the dishes, and Mom would knit and Dad would nap …”

And if, by now, you are perhaps just a little disinterested in Don’s life, you should have seen the wilted actors onstage. No offense to Don, who’s a nice guy and clearly enjoyed himself more than anyone, particularly when he joined an improvisation and pretended to be his own aunt. But so uninspired did the cast seem that night, there were times when I felt fortunate to get any improvisations at all. There were long, leaden stretches when the performers seemed to be watching the interview with Don as we were, sinking lower and lower in our seats.

But then, I’m afraid the improvs themselves didn’t light up the sky. Don refers to a fat old cow; actress on all fours moos as a cow. Don sleeps with his first gay lover; two actors in bed coyly act out The Moment. “And how would you die ideally, Don?” went the last question, mercifully. “Ideally, in my sleep.”

Actor playing our now-elderly hero kicks the bucket in his sleep, as a saxophone wails and a spot hits the motif “You Get Back From Life What You Put In.”

I don’t believe it; do you? I don’t believe for a single, smug second that you get back from life what you put in. But this is what I think about all improvisation: It should take place between consenting adults in private-never in public. It’s an actor’s exercise, a rehearsal technique en route to a public performance. All improvisations are boring by nature.

“Never stop,” I once heard Peter Brook telling his actors improvising during rehearsal. “One always stops as soon as something is about to be found.” They’d been stuck in the same scene for about 40 minutes. With great luck, a good improvisation ignites after honest investigation and countless tries. Lifegame , like all improvisations, is en route to something as yet unfinished. At best, it’s a rehearsal for a show.

And another thing! Perhaps I got the good-natured Lifegame troupe on a dud night. The show is pot luck, obviously. But for me, it’s more like an amateur-night-out, usually performed in England for a few boozy laughs in a room over a pub. There are TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic that have comedians and celebrities we never heard of improvising storylines given to them by a delighted host. E.g., “You’re an Olympic athlete in the decathlon who loses your shorts while being attacked by shrimps.” It’s a test of their wit, in a sense, a lark (and cheap to produce).

Lifegame is reality TV onstage. Everyone has a story to tell, everyone has a story worth hearing. Do they? If it were true in theater, there would be no need for writers or actors, no need for a Chekhov or the possessed artist driven as mad as Melville in search of some meaning to life, some significance rescued from the wreckage.

Don, Dick or Doreen will do.