Review: The Seven Year Disappear Is a Disturbing Tale of Art World Manipulation

Jordan Seavey’s drama receives its world premiere with the New Group off-Broadway.

Taylor Trensch and Cynthia Nixon star in Jordan Seavey’s The Seven Year Disappear, directed by Scott Elliott for the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
(© Monique Carboni)

A recent article in the paper of record highlights a survey suggesting that over-involved parenting (popularly known as “helicopter parenting”) is actually beneficial to adult children. While my instinct is to dismiss this as the ruling class using junk science to justify its own bad behavior, Jordan Seavey’s unsettling drama The Seven Year Disappear made me reconsider — at least momentarily.

Miriam (Cynthia Nixon) would seem to be the very opposite of a helicopter parent. An internationally renowned performance artist, she has long treated her son and business manager, Naphtali (Taylor Trensch), like an accessory, toting him around the globe as she chases her artistic vision. When she suddenly disappears for seven years (2009-2016), abandoning Naphtali and forcing him to find his own housing and employment, it seems to be the ultimate shove out of the nest. But could this all be part of a massive stunt, a pièce de résistance that will finally outshine Miriam’s publicity-hungry nemesis, Marina Abramović? Naphtali cannot shake the feeling he’s a pawn in someone else’s game.

Cynthia Nixon plays Tómas, and Taylor Trensch plays Naphtali in Jordan Seavey’s The Seven Year Disappear, directed by Scott Elliott for the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
(© Monique Carboni)

This uncanny vibe is reinforced by having Nixon play every other role in the show. She’s Wolfgang, a German curator and Miriam’s former lover, who precariously straddles the line between daddy and daddy in Naphtali’s life. She’s Tómas, Naphtali’s cynical Bernie Bro boyfriend, who whispers doom into his ear as he works on Hillary’s 2016 campaign as part of his transition from art to politics (Nixon, a one-time leftist challenger to Governor Andrew Cuomo, seems to particularly relish the line, “It’s hard to see the truth when you keep your eyes closed”).

Most creepily, she’s the host of a Brooklyn meth orgy, armed with a vile of GHB and a plummy accent straight from Canterbury (if bad teeth and disease haven’t put you off chemsex, Nixon’s performance surely will). Despite her arsenal of overripe dialects, Nixon never really disappears into these characters, and that seems to be the point: No matter where Naphtali goes, mother is always there.

The Seven Year Disappear is formally similar to Seavey’s last major production in New York, Homos, or Everyone in America, which opened a little over seven years ago (and just two days before the 2016 presidential election). The scenes jump back and forth over a multi-year timeline as we piece together a shredded tapestry of love and cruelty. This isn’t just the story of a gay man and his mommy issues. It’s the story of how status is passed from one generation to the next, how even a character-building stint in the wilderness can be engineered from above by a determined egomaniac. Miriam’s more than a helicopter parent; she’s an artist parent, treating her child like a lump of clay to be molded to her own godlike will.

Cynthia Nixon and Taylor Trensch star in Jordan Seavey’s The Seven Year Disappear, directed by Scott Elliott for the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
(© Monique Carboni)

Director Scott Elliott’s production adds to the pervasive sense of surveilled unreality: It unfolds on Derek McLane’s sleek black and metal set, adorned with large screens for John Narun’s MoMA-ready projections. Several of the scenes are performed far upstage and broadcast to the audience via live video. A slight delay and a distorted frame rate make these feel like half-remembered memories, or perhaps arty home movies. Qween Jean costumes both actors in flight suits, like avant-garde performers on a mission. Jeff Croiter’s brutal and erratic lighting threatens to bring us into their experiment. Sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen provide the saltiest commentary by underscoring an entire scene with Philip Glass, a little indication that the fucked-up art project we’re witnessing is just the highbrow version of what Andy Cohen is selling to the masses on Bravo.

“Your entire life is in defiance of privacy,” Naphtali weakly yelps at Miriam when they are finally reunited, and we instantly know that his resistance to maternal authority will be fleeting. Trensch is perfectly cast in this role because he seems like your average mild-mannered upper-middle-class Jewish homosexual, eager to follow the rules and be the best little boy in the world, but unfortunately born to one of America’s most transgressive artists. We easily accept that he was hired as Hillary’s LGBTQ Liaison, and that he treats the fabulously powerful Mrs. Clinton as a kind of adoptive mom in Miriam’s absence. He’s just so vulnerable, and few things have upset me more in the theater than the thought of Taylor Trensch spun out of his mind.

Meritocratic angst undergirds much of Seavey’s drama, that nagging dread of irrelevance that leads aspiring elites to increasingly desperate measures in the quest for the precious oxygen of attention. While this behavior takes extreme forms in the media and culture sectors (where there are easily 100 applicants for every job), it should be familiar to anyone in the professional class who has padded a résumé with a prestige internship or written an overwrought personal essay about a life-changing summer spent digging ditches in Peru. The Seven Year Disappear drives the mantra of whatever it takes to its logical, horrifying conclusion. For the kind of people who attend off-Broadway theater, it’s this season’s scariest play.

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