Who’s Normal, Anyway? Baryshnikov’s New Vehicle

I must say that the Lincoln Center Festival got off to a sticky start this summer. Venturing into the bowels of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to find the theater there doesn’t help much, even when Mikhail Baryshnikov is appearing. “Criminal Justice” puts a damper on things. Perhaps it’s me, but I always feel that I’m about to be arrested.

Three seasons ago, Simon McBurney, the director of Mnemonic , came onstage before the show. “Welcome to the John Jay College Theater within the world-famous John Jay College of Criminal Justice!” he announced to affectionate laughter.

Well, obviously, it’s a bit of a bummer. The festival’s theater spaces aren’t the best in the city. The John Jay College Theater itself has all the charm of a stuffy lecture hall (and it probably is one most of the year). Mr. McBurney’s The Elephant Vanishes will be playing this summer at the New York State Theatre-home to the New York City Ballet and the New York City Opera- and it’s exactly the kind of barn that’s unsuitable for his intimate ensemble. Can’t the festival find any other theaters in this city of theaters?

That said, I’m afraid that even Mikhail Baryshnikov playing an imaginary car can’t save Rezo Gabriadze’s awesomely cloying fable, Forbidden Christmas or the Doctor and the Patient . It’s a little early for Christmas, but I do not care much for stories that romanticize insanity.

Mr. Baryshnikov plays Chito, a kind of holy fool and sad clown-or dreaded Everyman and existential symbol of Life-who prefers to be a car rather than a human being. Under the circumstances, I don’t blame him.

If anyone’s to blame, it’s the Georgian artist Rezo Gabriadze, who, in addition to writing and directing Forbidden Christmas , is responsible for the scenic, sound and costume design. Mr. Gabriadze is best known for his anthropomorphic marionettes in such miniaturist epics as The Battle of Stalingrad , which I saw at the festival in 2000 and found both moving and precious. But though Mr. Gabriadze’s picture-book designs for Forbidden Christmas are pretty, the piece fails to stir and move us. Its blatantly charming, ‘”child-like” nature is precious all the time.

Even the name of the hero, Chito, is cute. Chito is sometimes naughty; Chito is sad; Chito is wise; Chito is a car. Chito is mad. Poor Chito.

Call me cynical, but Chito reminded me of the last Everyman-Clown I wanted to kill. He was the horribly cute central character named Uh-Oh in Robert La Fosse’s Land of Nod for the New York City Ballet. Uh-Oh was all you would expect an Uh-Oh to be. But Forbidden Christmas isn’t theater for adults. It’s infantilized theater for adults, or it’s theater for very young, goody-goody children.

“Do you know what my ideal term for the theatre would be?” Brecht once asked rhetorically. “It would be ‘Theatre of Naïvety.’” But the outer naïvety of Mr. Gabriadze’s ingratiating allegory reveals no substance within its feyness. Hoping for avant-garde theater, we found only a folksy message dripping in Hallmark whimsy.

The piece begins as a wordless, 20-minute prologue, like a silent film (or human puppet show). Poor Chito is a sailor who returns home in the 1950′s to his little town in Georgia and finds his fiancée has married his best friend. Whereupon he tries to drown himself, but is saved by a big, clunky angel who oversees All. All is not well with Chito, however, who, unable to cope with the loss, now retreats from life imagining he’s a car. Uh-oh!

Mr. Baryshnikov’s innate genius and good-natured, Keatonesque flair save the day for him-just. At least he doesn’t dress as a car. He’s more an eccentric: a helmeted driver with an inner car. But there’s only so much even he can do pretending to be one. He revs up; he drives here and there; he observes traffic lights; he skids to a halt; he looks soulful. That’s about it, really.

Meanwhile, it’s Christmas Eve and Christmas can’t be celebrated in Stalin’s Soviet Union (poor Chito, bad Stalin). The big, clunky angel tells Chito that one day he’ll find his girl again, but the chances don’t look good. After all, she abandoned him when he was normal and now he’s a car. No doubt that catch-all of every grating allegory, the Indestructibility of the Human Spirit, shall prevail.

An extremely long digression follows, however, about an exhausted Doctor who treated his wife very cruelly. Or the other way round. Anyway, he’s exhausted and can be seen frequently crumpling in a chair like, well, like one of Mr. Gabriadze’s marionettes. Even an anthropomorphic car is more caring than him. Chito insists, in his kindly way, that the Doc accompany him on a freezing night to visit a sick child. The child thinks she’s a 1954 Chevrolet.

I’m kidding! In fact, the child doesn’t turn out to be sick at all. I hope I’m not giving too much away when I tell you that in a surprisingly irrelevant subplot the philandering Doc is forgiven by his unusually accommodating wife, and that Chito eventually finds his fiancée (with child; his child), who loves him very much in spite of the fact that he’s a car.

There was good reason to believe that, by this point, Chito would at least hand in his road license to marry the love of his life (who’s left her short-term husband and returned home to live off thin air as a kind of mountain saint). I was mistaken.

“Who’s normal anyway, doctor?” she wonders vacantly, as Chito revs round town. Who’s normal ? He’s a car! He’s insane. He gives people rides. They go along with it.

The moral of Mr. Gabriadze’s Forbidden Christmas or the Doctor and the Patient appears to be: ‘Tis a far, far better thing to be a happy car than a miserable human being.

So be a car!