Attempts on Her Life

 

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Above: Aysan Celik, Sara Barnett, T. Ryder Smith

Excerpts from the reviews

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“Martin Crimp’s play is a courageous and fascinating experiment. There is no plot in the traditional sense, there is no central character who appears on stage, and there is no supporting character who is likeable or invites anything but fleeting audience identification . . . It is difficult to become involved in the play . . . There is [also] a character named Annie. . . . Depending on which set of supporting characters is onstage at the moment, she is a character in a film script . . . a terrorist . . . a machine . . . an illustration . . .  a mother who has murdered her children . . . Or is Annie a new model of Italian car? . . . In spite of the plays passions, watching it is a very cold experience. . . . The acting is excellent, with each actor playing numerous roles. T. Ryder Smith, who recently succeeded brilliantly in the one-character ‘Underneath the Lintel’, creates several detailed and quite different characters. . . . “Attempts on her Life’ is, like life itself, extremely hard to completely understand . . .  “ Roy Sorrels, culturevulture.net

“Subtitled ’17 Scenarios for the Theatre’, the script grants the director full reign, as none of it’s dialogue is assigned to specific characters, and all settings and contexts are blank canvases. . . . But despite the show’s promising concept, director Steve Cosson attempt at ‘Attempts’ is about as stirring as watching seven well-read surgeons perform an autopsy on a department-store mannequin.” Smith Galtney, TimeOut NY

“Cryptic and elusive . . . The cast of seven does pretty well in making these ethereal scenarios crisp. . . . What lingers . . . after the lights come up is the chill feeling that the world is shattered like a broken glass orb in space, millions of pieces scattered and glinting, separate. cold and unknown.” Bruce Weber, The New York Times

 

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Full reviews

Culturevulture.net, Roy Sorrels – Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life is a courageous and fascinating experiment in the creation of a new kind of play. There is no plot in the traditional sense, there is no central character who actually appears on stage, and there is no supporting character who is likable or who invites anything but fleeting audience identification. Although it seems clear that the playwright did not leave these things out by accident, it is difficult to become involved with the play except on one level, that of admiring it as an experiment.  There is (or rather isn’t, because she never appears) a character known as Ann or Annie. Depending on which set of supporting characters is on stage at the moment, she is a character in a film script, or a peripatetic young (or perhaps middle-aged) woman who travels about the world carrying a red tote bag. In the red tote bag are some bombs, because she is reputed to be a terrorist; or perhaps there are just stones in the tote bag, because she may be contemplating suicide by drowning. Or is she a machine? To some observers she seems to be a machine, or is it an illustration made up of tiny dots? Is she a mother who has murdered her child and put the remains in two plastic bags? Is she a paranoid survivalist nut with a pickup truck and a few guns? Or is Ann a new model of Italian car? In one scene a young actor listens on headphones to ad copy for the car in Italian and translates it into English. The Italian version, in voice-over, is read by a Mussolini sound-alike who is, as he reads his version of the copy, going stark raving mad. One scene after another seeks to illuminate who Ann really is, and nobody, in their strongly held but wildly varying opinions, seems to have any doubt about it. It is only the audience that is utterly confused. This is, apparently, as the playwright intends, and it is a fascinating choice. Perhaps, with echoes of Rashomon, the viewer is meant to be frustrated, because who can really say who anybody really is, what the truth of any complex situation really is? The viewer struggles to gain a toehold on the slippery surface of the play, and perhaps the point is that in knowing other human beings there are only a few precarious and ultimately treacherous such toeholds available. This is surely a point worth making, but as drama, or as dark comedy, it is extremely difficult to do without more of the ingredients of character and plot. In Attempts on Her Life, individual scenes and certain supporting characters do momentarily become engaging, but some necessary core seems to be lacking. In spite of the play’s passions, watching it is a very cold experience. The acting is excellent, with each actor playing numerous roles. T. Ryder Smith, who recently succeeded brilliantly in the one-character Underneath the Lintel, creates several detailed and quite different characters. Christopher McCann and Jane Houdyshell both were spectacular in this season’s Zipper Theatre production of Charles Mee’s True Love, and here reinforce their reputations as two of New York’s best character actors with focused, finely honed performances. Since the play is so episodic, director Steve Cosson has had to choreograph the rapid-fire movement from one scene to another, and he’s done so splendidly. He has also supported the actors in creating the feeling that, even if the audience isn’t sure what’s going on, the actors do. The set, by Robert Pyzocha, especially given the challenge that the theatre affords virtually no wing space, creates a fluid kaleidoscope of time and place. Martin Crimp, with his unusual ideas of theatricality, character, and identity, is certainly a playwright to be eagerly watched. Attempts on Her Life is, like life itself, extremely hard to completely understand; therein lies not only its weakness, but also its strength. 4-23-02

Curtain Up, Elyse Sommer – Watching Martin Crimp’s Attempts On Her Life is a bit like the theatrical equivalent of playing tennis without a net. It has neither plot or theme that I can neatly sum up for you. You never meet the “Her ” of the title except through the ensemble of actors who place clues on that  netless stage.  If this sounds a bit like a mystery play, so it is — provided you accept the job of detective as to just who is making the attempts on the life of the woman variously referred to as Anne, Annie and Anya and what those attempts entail. Is she the typical small town girl who grew up to be a porn star, do-gooder, terrorist, artist? Is she a terorist or victim of terrorists. Is she dead or alive? Is she really a character or just a means for dramatically linked ironic observations — a series of contradictory clues designed to leave you clueless?  Crimp, who has a reputation for unconventional playwriting (making him a perfect fit for the Soho Rep’s commitment to just such plays) doesn’t provide a net for the director either. His script contains no suggestions for props or guidelines as to the number of actors, their appearance or names. Thus it is left to the director to determine who should say what in each of the seventeen scenarios tracing the identity of the never seen  Her. As Crimp puts it “This is a piece for a company of actors whose composition should reflect the composition of the world beyond the theater [the last three words hinting at the author’s intention to deconstruct the theater as we know it]. Let each scenario . . . unfold against a distinct world — a design — which best exposes its irony.” Our first view of the company’s unimposing stage indicates that director Steve Cosson has chosen a very bare bones approach. Two chairs, a standing ashtray and, in the background, some panels on wheels. But as the scenes unfold, those simple sets, with a strong assist from lighting designer Thomas Dunn, turn out to have quite a few visual twists and turns — including a picket fenced, small town anywhere U.S.A. house  Cosson has chosen an ideal company to make the attempts on connecting us to the life of the never seen focal character. All seven are completely in tune with the demands of their varied roles. They smoothly handle diverse styles, whether talking to each other or bursting into song, shades of  The Singing Detective. The first scene consists of a long voice over on the mysterious Anne’s answering machine. It’s a familiar play opening device but probably the longest ever example. Instead of one message we have a whole day’s accumulation that includes a deeply apologetic but distracted lover, a loving mom refusing an apparent request for money, and a terrifying threat. Those messages alert you that you are about to meet a person through the perceptions of others. It’s a straightforward beginning. As the various duets, trios and full cast scenes unfold, however, you realize that the more you know the less you can understand. The scenarios are shot through with humor. One of the first and sharpest, “Tragedy of Love and Ideology”, has Sara Barnett, Aysan Celik and T. Ryder Smith hilariously working on a novel — or is it a movie script proposal? Christopher McCann and Jayne Houdyshell are terrific as “Mum and Dad.” Also amusing, is the full company’s witty  artspeak in “Untitled (100 Words).”  While the actors are uniformly excellent, some of the stylish irony of Crimp’s script hits dead spots. This is especially true towards the end when we have several occasions that feel like the climax, only to be followed by yet another scene. Laying on the irony with a trowel is a monologue by Damian Baldet which dehumanizes Anne as “The New Annie”, a car which, amongst other assets, has “no room for the degenerate races.”  In the final analysis,  Attempts On Her Life  is intriguing and often bracing, but not especially moving. Its cutting edge fails to cut deep enough to represent the cure for shocking our  fabulous invalid out of its lethargic state. For that you need plays that can appeal to the gray-haired uptown set as well as the twenty and thirty somethings who regularly flock to the  Soho  Rep because that’s where they are always assured of something new and at affordable ticket prices. 4-19-02

New York Times, Bruce Weber – The Cigarette Unsmoked, the Messages Unheard. Martin Crimp’s cryptic and elusive play, ”Attempts on Her Life,” feels like a contemporary echo of the tribal belief that a photograph will steal the soul. In this age of image bombardment, impatience and glancing perspectives, the play philosophizes, human identity survives only in shards. Try and define a person absolutely, and you threaten her destruction. Written in 1997, the play, now being given its American premiere by SoHo Rep, consists of 17 scenes that drift about randomly in theater space. That is, the characters, unnamed by the playwright but evidently different in each scene and set in various unnamed places, are all engaged in talking to or about someone who never appears. The focus of their attention may or may not be the same person; she’s always called Anne or a variation like Anny or Anya, and in some of the conversations similar events are recalled, though the details frequently contradict what we think we already know. Further, many of the episodes have a sinister cast, suggesting that Anne may be a suicide, a murder victim, a terrorist, a vicious racist, a pornography star, a betrayed wife, a self-destructive artist, any or all of the above. In one grimly funny episode, ”the Anny” is a new car model, described by an announcer with the intonation of a radio commercial. ”We understand all the things other manufacturers offer as extras are offered on the Anny as standard,” the announcer says, while behind him a mumbling translator repeats the phrases in an Eastern European sounding language. ”When we arrive at our destination in the Anny, we will always be embraced by good-looking men and good-looking women,” and ”we will not be betrayed, tortured or shot.” If not similarly surreal, several of the episodes are equally straight-faced in their ominous humor. The script includes no settings and few stage directions; and the playwright gives no clues as to who the characters are, except for the dialogue itself. And the director, Steve Cosson, largely takes advantage of this, making use of rolling panels to suggest homes, business offices, a showroom and a recording studio without ever making the set so explicit as to shed the play’s resistance to literal knowing. It’s a difficult line to walk; some of the episodes are placed a bit too obscurely to resonate as intended, and there is one too many movie-pitch scenario. The cast of seven does pretty well in making these ethereal scenarios crisp. The play opens in an empty apartment, with a cigarette burning in an ashtray and the answering machine playing messages to Anne: from a departed lover, her mother, someone who has read something she has written, a car saleswoman. The device is a little timeworn, but the messages are well written and amusing. Among them there are two vicious threats. The machine, the cigarette, the empty stage all suggest that something sudden and mysterious has caused Anne to vanish. And many of the details from the messages (not to mention the ashtray itself, the kind with a chrome bowl and chrome stalk that is often found in office waiting rooms) are revisited by others. Among the more effective episodes are a visit with Anne’s parents, after her disappearance, who remember her with such unrevealing affection that it is evident they didn’t know their daughter at all; an eerie speech by a young woman who breaks down while defending the life of a teenage pornography actress; and a bubble-gum musical number in which three women sing about a character called the girl next door: ”She’s a terrorist threat/She’s a mother of three/She’s a cheap cigarette/She is Ecstasy.” The play ends on a dissonant note with a crowd of characters and two conversations going on simultaneously. One finishes with the recollection of a vividly awful crime, the other with a mundane and mindless query about frozen food. What lingers from ”Attempts on Her Life” after the lights come up is the chill feeling that the world is shattered like a broken glass orb in space, millions of pieces scattered and glinting, separate, cold and unknown. 4-30-02

NYTheatre.com – Ken Urban – The American premiere of Attempts on her Life, now running at Soho Rep, is full of theatrical surprises. The tight ensemble work by the cast, aided by inventive direction and design, makes the show a must-see. If you are looking for a night of thought-provoking theatre, this British play is worth your time and energy. Martin Crimp’s play is composed of seventeen titled scenes, each of which can be played by a varying number of speakers. The playscript only designates when there is a change of speaker. Details like the number of speakers in a scene, or the gender and race of the speakers are all matters of interpretation. As a result, the play can be staged in any number of ways. What holds the seventeen “scenarios for the theatre” together is their subject: the mysterious Anne. Over the course of the play, Anne never appears; instead, various figures discuss her life. Anne could, perhaps, be a terrorist, a victim of violence, an underage Porno star or even an expensive car. Attempts on her Life is not about discovering the truth of Anne’s identity, but the process by which we try to discover that truth. The play is after the big question: How is it that we come to know the Other? Crimp suggests that the process of knowing is never a neutral one, and in fact, that the subject perpetuates a violence on the object that it seeks to know. It is no coincidence that the object of investigation in this play is a woman, since the female other has been the object of the male gaze since time immemorial. Though this may sound like an academic exercise, as events of the last decade attest, it is an issue of real importance in our media-saturated culture. Crimp never lets his exploration of such a theoretical question turn his play into a mere exercise. What makes theatre of this kind work is the writing: Crimp’s prose can be gorgeous, even when it unsettles, and the play is peppered with moments of profound humor. Director Steve Cosson does a first-rate job allowing the language, which often achieves a novelistic quality, take center-stage. Whether it be a tag-team of writers in the act of composition or a trashy Euro-pop girl group performing their latest single, Cosson gives each of the scenes a world and grounds the speakers in it. The words never emerge from a void and as a result, the pictures that the actors paint are crystal-clear, even if the staging sometimes feels a tad too literal. The cast is uniformly strong: T. Ryder Smith, who was excellent in last year’s Lipstick Traces, demonstrates his versatility as he seamlessly moves between roles. Damian Baldet excels in the play’s funniest scene, “The New Anny,” as he translates a car commercial which becomes increasingly fascistic in tone. Jayne Houdyshell and Christopher McCann also give first-rate performances. As McCann and Houdyshell relate tales of Anne’s childhood desire to be a terrorist in the “Mum and Dad” scene, they convince the audience that they know who Anne is. But by the scene’s end, we watch that certainty dissolve, again confirming that Anne is “not a real character, but a lack of character.” Houdyshell and McCann shine in the production’s simplest moments, when they each simply speak alone on stage (“Kinda Funny” and “Strangely!”). They never fail to capture the audience’s attention. The rest of the cast (Sara Barnett, Aysan Celik and Tracey A. Leigh) do equally strong work. If there is any quibble I have with the production, it is that sometimes the individual scenes feel too similar. On the page, the scenes are more distinct than sometimes comes across in this production. That feeling of sameness slows down the pace at the start of the evening. Crimp’s irony is delivered a little too archly in places. Again, varying the tone and complicating that irony a bit more would have helped distinguish the moments. But in the final analysis, these are minor issues. The cast take this challenging material and turn it into a fully engaging evening of theatre. Even if you disagree with the play’s argument or find its abstract style somewhat disorienting,  Attempts on her Life provokes its audience. I left Soho Rep excited by Cosson’s excellent direction and hoping to see more of this experimental side of British playwriting in New York.

Village Voice, Alexis SoloskiAnnie’s Hard-Knock Lives. In ‘Dealing With Clair’, Martin Crimp’s nasty 1988 play of devious real estate agents and louche Italian nannies, a suburban mother asks a repairman to work quietly to prevent waking a baby. The repairman agrees, and requests “something like a blanket, I could wrap it round my hammer.” A blanket-wrapped hammer isn’t a bad analogue for Crimp’s theater, provided the hammer is outsized and the blanket somewhat threadbare. Violence, as perpetrated on women, children, the working class, even entire nations, fascinates him. His plays and many of his translations survey the causes and effects of brutality. They also treat, often eloquently, the reactions of accessories and observers their desire to romanticize, fetishize, exploit, or forget the viciousness. However, Crimp frequently drags a modish carpet over the bloodstains. Degradations and murders abound, but only in the mouths of the characters. Physical cruelty is rarely depicted, incessantly articulated. And as Crimp thoughtfully lends those characters his considerable talent for persuasive speech and mordant humor, the words themselves further veil the acts: If horror can be so fluently expressed, surely it can’t be so horrifying. In Crimp’s 1997 Attempts on Her Life, enjoying its American premiere at Soho Rep, that patina of clever language nearly glosses over the drama. Here, Crimp explores the act of identification as an act of violence that there is aggression, even sadism, in rejecting subjective interpretation in favor of a single solution. The play consists of 17 scenes or attempts to identify who or what is “Annie.” In the first segment alone a series of messages left on an answering machine Annie fills the roles of lover, daughter, artist, customer, and victim. Subsequent scenes add terrorist, refugee, suicide, innocent, cultist, and new car to the list of possible identities. Throughout, the push to pinpoint her is formidable. The speakers’ efforts to nail down the ontology of Annie are placed on par with her alleged bombing of shoe stores and sufferings at the hands of soldiers, hence the title’s double meaning. Each segment has an individual form and tone. Those answering machine messages rub shoulders with sections structured as interviews, commercials, pop songs, and film treatments. They’re cunningly written (though Crimp does start to repeat himself toward the end), but their smartness detracts from the play’s emotional intensity. Steve Cosson’s direction both helps and harms. He grounds each scene, often suggesting a specific milieu for Crimp’s locationless vignettes, and encourages his cast of seven (all quite good) to make clear choices in their portrayals. But Cosson doesn’t commit to the play’s caustic humor (the sort that elicits a laugh, then makes you choke on it) or to its harsher aspects. His adept but inoffensive staging makes the first half march along briskly but the second drag its feet. Cosson can’t or won’t render Crimp’s nastiness palpable. Considering that few babies are likely to attend, Cosson might care to unswaddle that hammer. 5-1-02