Steven Rattazzi (center) in A.W.O.L.
Photo © Samuel Doroff
Steven Rattazzi (center) in A.W.O.L.
Photo © Samuel Doroff
For theater to stay vibrant, it often has to risk alienating complacent audiences, and that's the case with A.W.O.L. Playwright Olivier Cadiot's humorous, moving, but often arch portrait of homelessness and alienation makes the audience work to uncover the author's insights.

Part of the six-month-long Act French festival, this Americanized version of Cadiot's play centers on a New York City beggar who fancifully re-creates the world around him. In his imaginary adventures, he fantasizes about a tryst (which he illustrates in explicit detail) with a freckled redhead who occasionally walks past him, navigates a food service crisis that takes on military proportions, and re-lives false memories of World War II heroism and tragedy. A group of 12 Wall Street businessmen surrounds him at all times, serving as a kind of Greek chorus for a post-modern age. This image is stark and poignant; the chorus is the mobile army of a functioning society from which the main character has become absent without leave.

As might be expected in a play of this sort, the line between illusion and reality blurs. We never know for certain whether the main character's stories are his memories, observations of the people who pass by him, or inventions pulled out of thin air. The play's setting is equally nebulous, as the Manhattan streets occasionally appear to be transported to the banks of the Seine. In one scene, a butler lectures a chef on how to present the accoutrements of duck de la couronne, and in another, the chorus repeats Hitler's remark that their country is a nation of small farmers that can run the fashion industry.

Cadiot's script consists of crisp, manic verse, the kind of poetry that is notoriously difficult to translate. Moreover, it is peppered with dated references that are even harder to convey. But translator Cole Swensen has done a terrific job of turning French slang into a modern American vernacular, and he often slips contemporary colloquialisms into the lyrical script.

Steven Rattazzi's breezy, clear, and restrained performance as the beggar greatly helps the audience to "get" the whirlwind action. The actor channels the archetypes of the little tramp, the hardened general, and the bitter butler with ease. He proves to be a consummate storyteller, never condescending to the audience by over-illustrating his actions but making them detailed enough to make sure that we can follow the plot.

Anna Kiraly's set design is simplicity itself: The floor is painted white and the walls are black. The playing area is empty save for a batch of flattened cardboard boxes and a clear garbage bag filled with soda cans, which the main character carries around with him. Director Marion Schoevaert always uses the set creatively, and the production is further enhanced by Adam Silverman's wily music for the chorus, part opera and part Dada. You won't find many other theater pieces in New York that are as challenging as A.W.O.L. -- and that's a shame.