Richard Foreman has been trolling the New York theater scene for a very long time. His instantly recognizable style of busy sets, nonlinear and often nonsensical dialogue, disorienting lighting, and habitually awkward movement has elicited glee and frustration from audiences for nearly half a century. His latest project, Old-Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance), represents a return to his old stomping grounds, the Public Theater, as well as his latest reemergence from retirement. (Foreman is the Barbra Streisand of the avant-garde.) If you're looking for an evening of bizarre and internationally acclaimed experimental theater, this is the real deal. The play is undoubtedly Foreman's; however, his excursions into story and character, even if presented ironically, prove that the septuagenarian auteur can still offer up plenty of surprises.
The set is pure Foreman, littered with symbols and dissected by taut wires. Newspapers, celebrity photographs, bouquets of flowers, and various other accouterments of prostitution festoon the wall space, extending out around the audience. It is an impressive sight to behold and if you get bored with the action of the play, you can always amuse yourself by playing scavenger hunt with the scenery.
Samuel (Rocco Sisto), a slow-talking Southern writer type, inhabits this space. He is a fount of sentimental reflection. He wistfully recounts an afternoon in which he watched "beautiful coquettes sip tea, or lick at cool mixed drinks of gin and vermouth, suffering quietly like the rest of us." He is joined by said coquettes, the simpering flapper prostitutes Suzie (Alenka Kraigher) and Gabriella (Stephanie Hayes), who slink about the stage making pithy statements with little to no significance…but man do they sound profound. Alfredo (David Skeist) is Samuel's clumsy best friend. Nicholas Noreña plays a wide-eyed Walt Whitman-looking gremlin as Bibendum (aka Michelin), a character who seems to have scant relationship to the others. He never speaks, but occasionally appears on stage to beat his drum and glare at the audience.
As is often the case, the hookers have the best lines in this very funny play. As Samuel waxes poetic about his desire to travel and make money by writing about his exotic adventures, Suzie menacingly interjects, "You probably mean travel guides." As Suzie, the brilliant Kraigher has an aura reminiscent of Ann Baxter in The Ten Commandments.
There is more of a story and a sense of character in Old-Fashioned Prostitutes than in many of Foreman's previous plays, especially those of recent years. Of course, this foray into "traditional theater" and its trappings is all done with a big, fat tongue-in-cheek. It all seems so familiar and comforting, until Foreman rudely interrupts Samuel's dreamy Morgan Freeman-esque narration with a "hold it" (as if we're on a film set) or "end of play" as delivered by his signature schizophrenic sound design. Foreman never lets us forget that what we're watching is completely artificial and contrived.
The unmistakable sound of a buzzing alarm clock — the call to attention for millions of American workers — serves as a reminder that we are all prostitutes to some extent. Foreman and the Public Theater are certainly no exception. $71.50 for a 65-minute session is apparently the going rate these days. Of course, if avant-garde theater isn't really your scene, you might want to opt for something, or someone, a little more old-fashioned.
Foreman has always been clear about his disdain for group human response — that is the shared emotional response to a work of art by an audience. He thinks it turns people into Nazis. He would much rather his audience leave the theater feeling all different things, and on that point he is mostly successful: A friend and I were strongly divided in our reactions when we discussed them at dinner post-show. (I felt giddy and surprised; he felt bored and condescended.) Indeed, unless you count the smug self satisfaction one gets from even attending experimental theater as a "group human response," Foreman has triumphed once again.