Daily Housework: In ‘Habit,’ David Levine Makes Acting a Chore

Realist theater at its most addictive.

Performance still from “Habit,” directed by David Levine. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

In Habit, a 90-minute play directed by David Levine and performed on a loop for eight hours a day at a warehouse space attached to Essex Street Market, there’s a one-bedroom house with the windows and doors knocked out and no roof. There are three actors inside and, depending upon what time you arrive or what their mood is like or any number of other variables, they are either snorting cocaine, showering, eating cereal, microwaving frozen pizza, firing a gun at each other, asleep or dead. At a certain point during any loop, one of them will always put on Captain Beefheart. Another will always get dressed. Another will flush the coke down the toilet and produce a gun. Beyond that, things are mostly unpredictable.

There is essentially no staging. The actors simply live in the house and perform the play. More interesting than the deliberately soap-operatic script and its melodramatic plot is how all of the action boils down to literal habits—hence the title. There are the habits of the characters, including, in at least one instance, a coke habit (it’s actually condensed milk), in another, habitual masturbation with a jack-o’-lantern, and, across the board, a nearly constant bickering. But then you start to notice the habits of the actors. You watch them gradually break the habits of a conventional American acting style, becoming eerily subtle or frustrated or giddy as they repeat the lines over and over throughout the day, slightly different each time. Stranger still is how you start to think you’re noticing the habits of the actors as people—who takes his coffee black, or her toast with butter. Are these the traits of the characters or of the actors, or is it some conflation of the two?

DAVID LEVINE DESCRIBES himself as a theater director who doesn’t like to go to the theater. He started directing in the ’90s, when he was in graduate school at Harvard. He studied literature before dropping out and, presciently, planned to write his dissertation on whether or not fictional characters should be considered “fake.” He moved back to New York in 1996 and worked on productions downtown and off Broadway, but became increasingly frustrated. There were physical limitations to what a person could do in a theater. The audience had to sit and the lights had to go down. It was hard to experiment. He liked the production of Richard III that he did in the Ludlow Street Municipal Parking Lot—this “weird trash monumental thing that happened every night” and that transformed the title character into a “vehicular centaur”—and he had some success, but he was eventually fired from his big break, a production of two plays by Denis Johnson in 2002. There are producers, and for that matter many audience members, who weren’t fans of a director who would do things like crank up the volume on Afternoon of a Faun during a pivotal scene of dialogue, making the scene climax whenever the music did and throwing off the timing completely.

“Theater just began to massively piss me off,” he said. “I looked at it as just doing the same thing over and over and over again. It had no reference at all to how the outside world had changed.”

Performance art, the go-to genre for many who experience those frustrations, didn’t seem much better, though it did provide a kind of cultural currency and more freedom. “There was like, Marina Abramovic cuts herself,” Mr. Levine said. “And somehow cutting yourself for spectacle is fundamentally not the same as just cutting yourself. Coming from theater, I was always kind of flipped out about how endurance guaranteed authenticity. And performance got really hung up on the idea of authenticity. But if you come from theater, anything could be fixed. So I wanted to short-circuit the authenticity in these acts of endurance.”

Mr. Levine. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

In 2004, he moved to Berlin. He says a lot of Americans move to Berlin and come back saying, “Why aren’t we more adventurous?” but that willingness to experiment is normative. They have socialized medicine and the actors are free to take more risks. They don’t even need a union to protect them. In Mr. Levine’s words, “You can do whatever the fuck you want.” He began thinking more about the institutional practice of theater and its relation to visual art. Why didn’t something like Prada, which, along with other luxury brands, often sponsors visual art exhibitions, ever sponsor plays? Why did theaters have to line up with banks and airlines? He thought up the idea of putting two actors in a closed plywood box and having them read two-person Broadway plays over and over on a loop. It was called ’Night, Motherfuckers (named for Marsha Norman’s ’Night, Mother), and staged at a bar owned by the art dealer Gavin Brown. The audience could hear the actors, but not see them. The actors were only able to see each other by looking at a mirror. The box was L-shaped, and they sat at separate ends of it, reading from two scripts a day. Things like Oleanna. The Guys. “Occasionally we’d drop some food in there,” Mr. Levine said.

In Berlin, where he was teaching at the European College of Liberal Arts, now a part of Bard, he began to refine his frustrations into a more theoretical critique. The backbone of his work comprises three performances, which were all conceived simultaneously—Bauerntheater, The Gallery Will Be Relocating Over the Summer and Habit. He was still thinking about the question of authentic or fake. He tried to imagine the three most genuine things he could think of, and came up with farming, making art and private domestic habits. For Bauerntheater—or “Farmers’ Theater”—which Mr. Levine calls his “harshest work,” he hired a method actor, David Barlow, to plant potatoes in the East German countryside in character as a Communist farmer from the Heiner Müller play Die Umsiedlerin. Mr. Barlow trained for several weeks in a rented room in the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn, working on his hoeing techniques in a custom-built sandbox. He then spent several days training with a potato farmer in Germany, one who still used an old Soviet tractor. After that, he just farmed. Manually. For 10 hours a day. Sometimes in the rain, sometimes in the heat, mostly alone, aside from a small crowd on the first day and a few neighbor farmers who would come by and shout at him in German, wondering why he was hoeing by hand.

“I had no idea how the hell I’d broach it with my agent,” Mr. Barlow told The Observer. “There were times when I was wondering what the point was, too. But that was also part of it. By the end, it was very important to me that those potatoes grow. When the plants started budding, I was over the moon!”

(Currently, Mr. Barlow is acting in a production of David Mamet’s Oleanna, in Pennsylvania.)

The Gallery Will Be Relocating Over the Summer was less sadistic, but more caustic. Mr. Levine hired eight actors to follow eight Berlin artists around for three months and “acquire them as characters,” then got another actor to follow around a curator and do the same. Then another 15 actors followed their own friends around, taking them on as roles. The actors—the “artists”—made new work by their characters, and the actor playing the curator selected work for a group show called “The Disappearance Gradient.” The actors had an art opening at a gallery that looked like any other opening, except that nothing in the space was real (except for the bartender, but he wasn’t in on the joke). At the same time, Mr. Levine was having his own opening for the project, in a courtyard outside of the gallery, which had been sealed off. The night plays a crucial role in the memoir A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, who was living in Berlin at the time and attended Mr. Levine’s real opening, watching the fake one going on inside. (He also wrote the fake press release for the fake show with Alix Rule.) “What they were up to looked largely the same as what we were up to,” Mr. Lewis-Kraus writes, “which was part of the point, but we were afraid that they were having a better time.”

Habit builds on these ideas by making them explicitly banal, by treating performance as straightforward work. It’s an endurance test, Mr. Levine says, but only “to the extent that any normal day job is an endurance test.” Jason Grote, who wrote the play’s script, said that Mr. Levine wanted “an American realist play that is very influenced by ’90s indie film.”

“I knew people would have to be working class, because that’s the kind of furniture that we’d be able to have in the space,” Mr. Grote said by phone from Los Angeles, where he now works as a staff writer for Mad Men. “The cast would have to be young, because those are the people who would have the energy to perform it. It was very difficult. It was trial and error. One of the hardest parts for me was to not make it a parody. When I first started working on it, it was very much a kind of parody. The version right now, it’s good enough for David’s purposes. It doesn’t need to be a masterpiece. Had I been able to keep working on it, I’d try to make it more sincere. To hide that it’s a sendup of this kind of play.”

Mitch and Doug are orphaned brothers who live in a crummy house in a town whose main attractions are a dive bar and a strip club.  Mitch is a music know-it-all who has just been fired from Walmart. Doug sells coke and is having a hard time getting the money together to pay off his supplier. Viv is home visiting from Hampshire College, where she studies semiotics. She slept with Doug the night before, much to the chagrin of Mitch. It’s a few days before Halloween, and the house is a disaster, with torn decorations and orange and black balloons all over the floor. Except sometimes the house is vaguely clean. It depends whether or not the actors have decided to tidy up. Slowly it’s revealed that Mitch and Doug were partially responsible for the death of Viv’s brother Petey several years before, and that Viv is not just visiting—she’s been kicked out of school for failing her classes and for some lewd behavior at a frat house. She came home to commit suicide, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. Originally, the play had an ending in which Doug had to sacrifice Viv in order to prove to his supplier that he means business, but the director and Mr. Grote decided to cut it. What happens depends on a lot of factors. The first time I saw the play, when Viv flushed the coke and pulled the gun on Doug, no one died. Doug wrestled the gun away from her and went into the bedroom, Mitch napped on the couch, Viv washed her face in the bathroom. The second loop I saw, they all died—Mitch shot Doug in the hallway, went into the living room and shot Viv (because it’s what she wanted anyway), then shot himself.

When it was over, they acted as anyone with a day job or a bad habit would. They got up and did it all over again.


Habit was presented by the French Institute Alliance Française and Performance Space 122 as part of the Crossing the Line festival.

mmiller@observer.com Daily Housework: In ‘Habit,’ David Levine Makes Acting a Chore