Review: On That Day in Amsterdam Casts a Dreamy Gaze on Art and Youth
Clarence Coo's nostalgic piece follows a pair of young lovers through a day in Amsterdam.
Sometimes hindsight is 20/20. And sometimes it's the sentimental rendering of a past that never really was. On That Day in Amsterdam — written by Clarence Coo and produced by Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters — frames itself as a product of the artistic liberties memory likes to take with the past. But doesn't it sometimes take a liberty or two to bring out the real truth of an experience? A truth greater than truth one might say. It takes a gentle touch to make that saccharine point convincingly, and Coo's work (directed by Zi Alikhan), while presenting some truly poetic moments, genuflects to the wonder of art so much, that it's hard not to respond to the piece as you would an overexcited tourist.
In fairness, the play's central characters are just that — though one of them tries his best to play it cool. Kevin (Glenn Morizio) is a college freshman who skipped town over winter break with his mother's credit card and the foolish impression that becoming a "traveler" (not a "tourist," mind you) would cure the insularity of his life. During his time in Amsterdam, he has a one-night stand with a man named Sammy (Ahmad Maksoud), a Middle Eastern refugee, who, in an uncharacteristically confident manner for someone who just had his first sexual encounter, insists on staying for breakfast, followed by a romantic day of sightseeing.
As the day unfolds, Kevin periodically ventures beyond the stage's cloudy scrim (a lovely and simple design by Jason Sherwood, as well as a canvas for projection designer Nicholas Hussong) to type on a perpetually open laptop. He's indulging in that solipsistic exercise everyone bashfully considers, few follow through on, and even fewer succeed at: He's writing a book. From the margins of his mind, he digs for memories of this one magical day in which he roamed the streets of Amsterdam with his 24-hour lover whom he'd never see again. He acknowledges the narrative gaps and lost details: Was Sammy's English comprehensible? Did he name his country of origin? Who really pursued whom at that night club? Ensemble performers Brandon Mendez Homer, Elizabeth Ramos, and Jonathan Raviv circle the periphery of the stage, narrating these internal queries as Amsterdam's most recognizable historical figures: Rembrandt, Anne Frank, and Van Gogh (or Vincent as he is more familiarly called in the program). And Kevin, slowly but surely, gets his arms around this fleeting day — or at least a version of it.
Coo's script (and Alikhan's direction of it) rarely skews from its self-serious tone — even when Coo's characters deserve some gentle mocking. As Kevin, Morizio (an actor with great poise and presence) speaks with the gentle earnestness of an introspective wanderer, while his actions paint a clashing picture of self-aggrandizing naivete. And yet Sammy (Maksoud giving a simple, grounded performance), a penniless refugee whose immediate future holds a dangerous boat trip to the UK, sees something in Kevin he would like to hold on to. Or is that merely the starry-eyed yarn Kevin spins in his mind as he puts his story to paper years afterward? That interpretation may make the most logical sense, but it would be a departure from the play's all-consuming tone of sincerity (set at the very start by Jesse Kovarsky's balletic movement direction) — one that projects the possibility of epiphany at every tourist trap in Amsterdam.
Herein lies the confusing contradiction of On That Day in Amsterdam. The tension between Kevin and Sammy is in their overarching worldview: Kevin, a child of a Filipino immigrant, is convinced in that oh-so-American way that an experience is only worth something if it can be turned into art for public consumption (Sammy snaps a pretty photo of a bird on his phone and Kevin sees this as a sign of his artistic calling). Sammy, meanwhile, lives life day by day out of necessity, and rejects this compulsion to leave behind relics of his existence for strangers to enjoy.
In a world where the line between content and art gets hazier every day, it's a thought-provoking debate to peer in on. There is also an undeniable splendor in the picture of youth devoid of cynicism — something Coo reveals a great fondness for in his protective handling of our dreamy college student. And yet, even as Kevin recalls being schooled by Sammy in the sharper edges of the world, he goes on to write his story with unschooled immaturity. He surrounds us with glossy versions of artists-turned-name-brands, and immerses us in a dreamlike world (lit ethereally by Cha See) where a tilt of the head turns everything into capital-a "Art." Both Kevin and Coo are free to see the world in such heightened tones, and even satisfy their craving to freeze experiences in amber. But it makes you wonder — what exactly did they learn on that day in Amsterdam?