Review: Isabel Is a Yawn-Inducing Jaunt Through the Woods

Reid tang’s semi-surreal play makes its world premiere with NAATCO.

Sagan Chen, Ni-Ni, and Haruna Lee star in reid tang’s Isabel, directed by Kedian Keohan, for NAATCO at the Abrons Arts Center.
(© Marcus Middleton)

“gender is scary!! embrace the fear,” reid tang writes (lowercase fashionably intentional) in a preface to the script of their new play, Isabel, now making its world premiere with NAATCO at the Abrons Arts Center. And truly, anyone who has ever slipped up with a personal pronoun, especially under the vigilant gaze of social media, knows this to be true. Luckily, almost everyone involved in Isabel answers to “they/them” so they shouldn’t be offended when I tell you that their play isn’t very good.

It takes place in a town called Hindsight, surrounded by a spooky forest full of stairways to nowhere [pause to allow the subtext to thwack you in the face like a branch on an overgrown trail]. Matt (Sagan Chen) has purchased a dilapidated old home and is determined to restore it. Matt’s brother, Harriet (Ni-Ni), shows up unexpectedly with his favorite lover Isabel (Haruna Lee). They’re tired from backpacking through the woods, but Matt has embarked on a major journey in self-contracting and is in no position to host. So Harriet and Isabel go back into the woods — a decision all come to regret.

Tang’s script features bumps in the night, woefully unprepared hikers, mysterious happenings in the woods, and a dopey park ranger who couldn’t save a file to the desktop, much less anyone’s life. These horror tropes ornament a central story about siblings and their secret culture of two, forged from shared aspirations and frustrations as Matt and Harriet grasp in the dark for their adult identities. And then there’s Isabel…

Sagan Chen plays Matt, and Haruna Lee plays Isabel in reid tang’s Isabel, directed by Kedian Keohan, for NAATCO at the Abrons Arts Center.
(© Marcus Middleton)

Our title character seems to be written as some sort of manic pixie dream person, someone so singular and magnetic that all off-putting personality traits are forgiven. But as performed by a permasmiling Haruna Lee, Isabel is mostly off-putting personality traits: whiny, entitled, and a litter bug who dumps a pile of plastic wrappers on Matt’s floor in an attempt to fish out a housewarming gift — a blue dildo (so outrageous!). We never quite see what Harriet (also no charmer) sees. Maybe their coupling is by default.

One wonders if director Kedian Keohan could have done something to make tang’s script percolate with intrigue, suspending us in a state of unease as we wait for the next shoe to drop. Certainly, the choice to bring the audience in through the stage door and seat us onstage, with the house of the theater concealed behind a tattered curtain, suggests an effort to disorient — to make us feel like we’re stepping into another world. But Keohan’s languid, imprecise staging does nothing to maintain or develop that feeling. Instead, obvious laugh lines are answered with crickets as the actors deliver performances that would be acceptable at a first rehearsal and not much after that.

Keohan does at least deliver respectable production values, with a set (by dots) that captures both the construction-site feel of the house and the uncanniness of the forest. Barbara Samuels’s lighting flashes and distracts, making us feel the rising anxiety Isabel and Harriet experience as they become hopelessly lost. Hahnji Jang’s costumes tell the story of shifting identities, with Harriet donning a girl’s school uniform in a flashback scene; meanwhile, Matt’s cargo shorts and aggressively branded Adidas hoodie suggest the aspirational masculinity of someone in the early stages of transition.

Sagan Chen stars in reid tang’s Isabel, directed by Kedian Keohan, for NAATCO at the Abrons Arts Center.
(© Marcus Middleton)

Sound designer Tei Blow puts in a valiant effort to jangle our nerves with creaking, groaning noises from the house and notes of tension rumbling beneath our seats. But the hairs on the back of my neck remained flaccid. I suspect it’s because the underlying script is an inert and shapeless thing, and tang has only partially committed to its story. Not even Alfred Hitchcock could make us scream.

Of course, genuine fear might not be tang’s intention at all. The script note I cited above might be tongue-in-cheek, and Isabel might be an acknowledgement that the lifelong process of discovering the full contours of one’s gender and sexuality need not be so frightening at all. If that’s the case, the off-Broadway audience, which greets the arrival of a mustachioed character named Harriet with not much more than a yawn, has already got the memo.

And perhaps that brings us to the scariest question of all for our community of genderqueer dramatists: When your whimsical meditations on gender cease to be seen as novel or even very interesting, what will you write about?

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Closed: July 6, 2024