A new “Habit”: David Levine’s addictive theatre verite
Still from David Levine’s ‘Habit’ at Luminato, 2011, as seen on Galleristny.com
In an effort to write about more of the performances I see, I’m playing a new game called, “What can I say about this performance in 15 minutes?” On your mark, get set, go!
Tonight I watched David Levine’s “Habit” twice through, more or less. Which is to say I saw three people play out a thoughtful, muted kind of low rent soap opera. The circumstances—a love triangle involving two brothers, one of them a drug dealer, and a suicide-by-provocation—is the stuff of melodrama. The performances, thankfully, are anything but. It’s as if your neighbors led especially depressing and seedy lives and you couldn’t resist watching them through their windows for hours at a time (way better than TV!).
I found I couldn’t tear myself away after an initial viewing, wanting to see if things would play out differently the second time around. While the main action stayed true to form, the differences were in the details. Viv (Eliza Baldi)—the doomed dirty blonde love object of sensitive songwriter Mitchell (Brian Bickerstaff) and plaything of his brother, small town drug kingpin Doug (Ben Mehl)—changed from sympath to mean girl when she explained to Mitchell that the poem he’s so proud to have published was part of a scam to get him to shell out money for printing costs. Mitchell is numb the first time he is videoed by Viv for her semiotics class, answering her questions about his admittedly sorry circumstances in life (he’s just been fired from a job at Wal-Mart). The second time, he is in tears. Everyone snorts more pretend Coke the second time through. The conceit of Viv taking “real life” videos for her college course is a delicious meta-theatrical joke. At one point she admonishes Doug for playing to the camera: “You’re performing!” she sneers.
Clinging to the opening where a sliding glass patio door might have been, angling for a better view (the play is staged inside a drywall home set up inside the Essex Street Market, and we peer at it through openings where the windows would be), I found myself wanting to step into the scene with the actors. And when the show was over, I got to. I ran into my friend Tom Sellar, whose partner, Gideon, is among the show’s producers (though anyone would have felt free to wander in once the power was cut and the show ended, mid-scene, to enthusiastic cheers and applause). Ben Mehl told us about the brownies Brian had made “onstage” (at his pretend home) during the show. While Mehl loved doing the show, he said he was glad it was over now. (The actors are onstage nonstop for eight hours at a time, just like an office work day, as Tom pointed out.) Later I heard him tell writer and director Levine that the performers knew that in whatever direction they tugged the narrative, they’d find a way to make it work.
(So that was more like 45 minutes, but I also got a phone call from my mom, answered a text from my brother, and bought a plane ticket. Not bad for late Sunday night!)