NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
The day I went to the Signature Theatre, it was so hellishly hot out that it felt as if the air was clinging to my skin. So I stepped into the air-conditioned coolness of the Pershing Square Signature Center in Manhattan for The Watering Hole, a theatrical installation conceived and curated by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage and Miranda Haymon.
What I had hoped for was refreshment. What I left with was a thirst for a more memorable and neatly composed offering.
The Watering Hole, directed by Haymon, is a collaborative project featuring work by Haymon and Nottage along with Christina Anderson, Matt Barbot, Montana Levi Blanco, Stefania Bulbarella, Amith Chandrashaker, nicHi douglas, Iyvon E., Justin Ellington, Emmie Finckel, Vanessa German, Ryan J. Haddad, Phillip Howze, Haruna Lee, Campbell Silverstein, Charly Evon Simpson and Rhiana Yazzie. For each 80-minute show, a small audience is split into two groups and led through the lobby, dressing rooms, theaters and backstage areas, where they encounter sculptures, audiovisual installations and interactive activities.
Part of the conceit, after all, is locating the theater as a gathering space a place for collaboration. At least I think it is. The production is too heterogeneous and muddled to rally around one clear theme or concept.
The grand staircase of the Signature Center is the first stop. The whole space is outlined with sea-blue walking paths and water drop stickers marking where to stand at a safe social distance. Audio interviews from the artists, in which most of them talk about ancestry, play through speakers. So this show is about heritage and ancestry? Well, no.
Because theres all of the water, like a video of Haddad in which he talks about how he, as a disabled man, learned how to swim. So perhaps its about independence and resiliency? Then what about German and Lees original song, This Room Is a Broken Heart, which plays on a mind-numbing loop in the lobby and talks about water as a symbol of grief? And Anderson and Haymons karaoke-inspired piece in a dressing room, where theres a Big-style floor piano that youre invited to use to accompany a song playing on the TV?
These are the parts of the show that fly off into the theater ether, such as the piece that shows a projection of a figure in a lotus pose who talks about energies, frequencies and chakras. But then this is paired with more literal meditations on water: In one part of the show, in some back hallway, theres a corner set up for a dance break, with a mound of sand, blue and pink fluorescent lights and some slightly deflated beach balls. In that same hallway theres a corkboard with beach photos and water-themed poems by Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton, Ada Limón and Natalie Shapero, among others.
The most traditional theater piece, Spray Cap (created by Barbot and Chandrashaker with Colon-Zayas), a monologue about yearning to come together and celebrate summer after a time of pandemic and isolation, is also the strongest. Its not just the straightforward approach but the cohesion of it the clarity of voice and themes, and the clear tie to the installation at large that highlights what the rest of the production lacks.
Even the set design a stage with two park benches and some crates arranged around a giant hydrant that puffs out steam fits perfectly with the speakers desire for everyone to come out and let themselves go in the brutal heat of a summer when people can finally meet up and touch.
Spray Cap has one of the few designs that actually work in the installation, unlike the handwritten notes and scrolls with words and reflections taped on the walls throughout the complex. Haddads video is played in a dark room with a ceiling that projects water scenes and a reflective floor that matches the same cool blue of the pool. And one of three lobby sailboat sculptures an ornate medley of trinkets and knickknacks such as bird figurines, shells and water bottles, along with a white baby piano is a stunning visual work by German and Lee.
But all this still fails to illuminate the upshot. Because The Watering Hole also seems to have an interest in a kind of community service. Nottage has said that the inspiration and organizing principle of the project came from a collaborative reflection on the Signature as a meeting place. And so one part of the show invites the audience to write on little sails what makes them feel safe and add them to a boat in the lobby. And another boat in the lobby holds postcards that audience members are prompted to fill out and write to incarcerated people.
Though well-intentioned, its hard to find the connective tissue here or, as Nottage says, the organizing principle.
Whatever The Watering Hole means to express, its drowned in this sea of artists.
"The Watering Hole"Through Aug. 8 Pershing Square Signature Center, New York City; 212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times