It’s rare enough that screenplays make great films; why would anyone think they can make great theater?
Yet that’s what the musician-storytellers James Harrison Monaco and Jerome Ellis, who go by James & Jerome, propose in “The Conversationalists,” which opened on Saturday at the Bushwick Starr. Denying themselves many of the tools that theater owns exclusively, they offer what is largely a narrated film script, complete with jump cuts, close-ups, pans and pullbacks.
The film itself is imaginary — and for too long so is the reward of “watching” it. You do not, for instance, experience those camera moves; you merely hear about them.
Nor do you see the three main characters in any conventional sense, though you wish you could. Abed is a Palestinian-born Jordanian who runs a chess shop in New York; Esperanza, a “multimillion record selling, Colombian-born, Mexican-raised singer of ranchera and other Latin American genres”; and Frankie, her troubled but loving teenage son. Caroming in and out of each other’s lives over continents and time, they make a compelling group portrait of rootlessness, both enforced and chosen.
But instead of getting to know them through the traditional process of having actors inhabit their hearts and bodies, they are mostly described in screenplay-style prose, often delivered by James in a flat, objective voice. When, at times, their dialogue is actually uttered, it may be in voice-over or projected like subtitles or in Arabic or Spanish. When their physical presence is suggested, it may be by anyone in the five-person cast, and later by anyone else. Nevertheless, as these moments accumulate, the pull of drama is so strong that you begin to feel a Cubist portrait coming to life.
That feeling will pass, almost as if it’s being deliberately disowned. As such, it’s a kind of bravery that the director Annie Tippe, whose production of Dave Malloy’s “Octet” was one of last year’s highlights, sticks so loyally to the alienating concept. There is nothing literal about her staging. Though the story takes place in movie-ready settings like a rooftop in Jordan, an ocean-view home on the Pacific Ocean and the Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City, the Bushwick Starr’s tiny stage is by necessity and design kept nearly bare. The visuals are left to the audience’s imagination; when the film’s “credits” roll in the form of a projection on a transparent scrim, we learn that the art direction is by “Your Name Appears.”
All this deconstruction makes it difficult, especially at first, to sense the shape of the story, which is in any case a baggy one, mimicking the waywardness and heightened crises of international melodramas in the manner of Fassbinder and Almodóvar. Eventually you grasp the idea that you’re seeing a tale of second journeys: Abed, Esperanza and Frankie are migrants who, for personal instead of political reasons, are starting the process of migrating again. Tellingly, one of Esperanza’s big songs is called “My Second Love,” which encourages people to trade in their first. The second, she tells us, is always the true one.
If only two — or even three — loves were enough for “The Conversationalists.” Instead, it keeps layering on its pet conceits as if the idea of parting with any of them were unbearable. But if the play often seems to be privileging the passions of the creative team over those of the characters, the gambit eventually pays off. Powerful dramatic emotion may be deliberately barred by the various intellectual checkpoints the authors have erected but there’s one element — music — that no border guard can keep out.
The music, led by Jerome at the keyboards and sometimes on tenor sax, is terrific. Sometimes it directly illustrates the plot, as when it provides Esperanza’s rancheras, gorgeously sung by Michelle J. Rodriguez. Other times it serves symbolically; Esperanza’s estranged husband (and Frankie’s father) is marvelously “portrayed” by an insinuating violin solo, performed by Delaney Stockli. Most often it suggests the story’s wider themes and palette of feelings in the manner of a conventional soundtrack.
But the soundtrack for “The Conversationalists” is naturally and vastly eclectic in style, encompassing Latin genres, American pop, Arabic song and what feels like James & Jerome’s very personal emo. All of it is beautifully performed by the ensemble, which also includes John Murchison on bass, oud and a zither-like instrument called the qanun; and even James himself, bopping happily on claves.
If the nonmusical parts of “The Conversationalists” lack such verve and joy, we eventually learn why that may be so. About two-thirds of the way through the play, when the melodrama turns suddenly darker, Jerome interrupts it with a 10-minute speech, seemingly improvised, about the plight of migrants, the prison-industrial complex and the question of appropriation: Who has the right to tell what stories? No matter how much the play may feel abstract to us, it is evidently not so to him, and so his speech recolors everything we’ve seen before.
That a play achieves depth mostly through music and a powerful late interpolation feels a bit backward to me, even if musicals do it all the time. But “The Conversationalists” is involved in a trickier maneuver, suppressing emotional engagement in the places you expect to find it in hopes of grabbing you by the tail when you don’t. To the extent it succeeds, it’s another worthy experiment — the kind Bushwick Starr excels in — into the nature of post-naturalism in theater.
But I hope that in its infatuation with film and deconstruction, “The Conversationalists” is not leading us toward a theater that is also post-emotional. Live shared feeling between actor and audience is the essence of drama — and the one thing movies can’t copy.
Tickets Through Feb. 1 at the Bushwick Starr, Brooklyn; thebushwickstarr.org. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes.
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