It's difficult to not have high expectations for the pairing of Herskovits with Ten Blocks, since under his guidance, works like Goethe's Faust have leapt vividly to life, with deft anachronistic touches and dreamlike imagery. Surprisingly some of Herskovits' adventurousness seems to have been diluted here. Indeed, as the play unfolds, Herskovits and company serve up Williams' fantastical tale in an almost surprisingly straightforward manner.
The work is essentially the funeral march of Kilroy (imbued with almost Jimmy Cagney-like toughness by Satya Bhabha), a young American boxer who tumbles into a dead-end of a Latin American town, where the "street-cleaners" haunt the town's denizens by carrying off indigents to an ominous laboratory for dissection. These specters of death wear clear plastic helmets and elbow length yellow gloves; but the visual is almost too literal rather than merely striking. Moreover, there is never much reason for Kilroy or newly penniless businessman Jacques Casanova (played with dispirited regality by Raphael Nash Thompson) to truly fear them.
More successful is the sequence that precedes the play's center: Kilroy's achingly bittersweet encounter with Esmeralda (Purva Bedi), a young gypsy, who nightly regains her virginity for just one man -- someone who is about to die. Before Kilroy is led to this young woman, he meets her mother (one of several fine turns from the multiply-cast McKenna Kerrigan), and the production beautifully achieves a kind of surreal B-movie quality that simultaneously amuses and disorients. (The ingenious scenic designer Leonore Doxsee uses a combination of turquoise walls and sheer curtains to encapsulate both the reality and dreamlike nature of Williams' play.)
Not surprisingly, Williams' work pulsates with lyricism, and there are times when the poetry is delivered with haunting crispness, such as when the venerable Mr. Gutman (played with appropriately cool detachment by Curt Hostetter) describes the city and hotel that he runs. Each of his pronouncements is punctuated by a gentle exclamation from the character known just as "Guitar Player" (a captivating Dara Seitzman). Unfortunately, as the story spirals out of control and Kilroy's predicament becomes more dire, there's a manic quality to all of the performers' delivery that can render some of the text incomprehensible. Thankfully, by the time Don Quixote (Hostetter again) arrives, the production has once again steadied itself and the production ends in a moment when optimism and hopelessness are inextricably intertwined.
With its references to film icons and scientific advancements of the period, the ambitious play is also a cutting glimpse into a sense of nihilism brought about by the dawning of the Atomic age. But the play's disparate elements and ideas unfortunately do not always come together as successfully in this production as one would hope.