Off-Broadway Work Sends Viewers in Search of a Point
Yet, like many 59E59 Theater productions past, ‘Boswell’ is tinged with signature salvific sweetness. At the heart of the piece is a story about forming friendships.
59E59 Theater’s black-box space is intimate. On Sunday, 58 people squeezed into their seats like sardines, sides of legs pressed together, anticipating the afternoon performance of MHK Production’s “Boswell.” I opened my notebook in my lap, self-conscious that I was taking up too much space.
A middle-aged man seated beside me leaned over. “Are you a reviewer?” he asked behind a mask. “The notebook gave you away.”
“Yes, for the Sun,” I said. “What do you do?”
“Well, I …,” he began, and then, taking in my bare face with surprise, asked, “We don’t have to wear these things anymore?”
I looked around. Roughly half the audience’s faces were masked. There was no prodding chorus of employees at the entrance, demanding, “Put your mask on before you enter.” I shook my head.
“Oh, thank God,” he said, stripping it off his face and tucking it into his pocket. “I’ll enjoy the show so much more without this thing on.” We swapped stories about our lives and our passion for off-Broadway theater. Before the curtain even rose, I’d made a friend.
The lights dimmed. The narrator, Joan, entered. “Here we are,” she said. “All of us together, in a moment. It’s good to see you.”
Set in the 1950s, this ambitious academic narrator is on a search for source material from her favorite intellectual, Samuel Johnson. However, when her adventures take her to a cramped attic in the Scottish countryside, she falls in love with the works of James Boswell, Johnson’s unserious 18th century sidekick. “A Tour of the Scottish Hebrides” captures her heart and overrides her rigid mind. She is “coaxed towards a life of greater authenticity — and fun.”
Regardless of how intellectually engaging it may sound, “Boswell” is plagued by technical issues that keep it from reaching its full potential. The single-room set, though visually interesting, is cluttered with books, maps, shelves, and trunks, inhibiting the actors’ physicality and taking Theater C from a small space to a claustrophobic one. Performances that might have been powerful in a larger space feel forced and strident. Perhaps, to maximize the impact of such an imaginative plot, Theater A or B might have been more fitting.
Marie Kohler’s script, despite being named “Best of the Year” by one magazine, is similarly addled. Although she effectively integrates flowery historical quotes from our protagonists, the one-hour, 30-minute run time of “Boswell” is far too long, even with no intermission. The action is meandering. Until the last 10 minutes, the audience is on a journey of their own — searching for the point.
Yet, like many 59E59 Theater productions past, “Boswell” is tinged with signature salvific sweetness. At the heart of the piece is a story about forming friendships, both effortlessly and reluctantly — Samuel Johnson with James Boswell, and James Boswell with Joan.
“We cannot tell the precise moment when a friendship is formed,” Joan says toward the eleventh hour. However, I’m not sure that’s true. Watching the bare, smiling faces of those gathered to share in the work of the creative team behind this scrappy show, I felt kinship. We were shedding anonymity for something more intimate.
59E59 Theaters, it was so good to see you.