Jordan Harrison’s new play The Amateurs is about the invention of the subject, the moment when humans began to conceive of themselves in terms of “I.” Mr. Harrison locates this change during the Middle Ages, when the plague reinvented our relationship to death.
How do I know this? Because he tell us. Halfway through the play, which is ostensibly about a group of fourteenth-century traveling players whose survival depends on their ability to entertain, Mr. Jordan halts the action. The actor playing Gregory (Michael Cyril Creighton), their prop master, shifts into the role of the playwright, then spends a good chunk of time outlining the intellectual and historical contexts of what we are watching. He bloviates through a monologue about AIDS, about the first person he knew with the disease, about how this lead him to write a play about the Black Death. We are gifted such gems as, “Confronted with a crisis, what is the artistic impulse? Is it to dive headlong in, and record suffering for future generations? Or is it to make us forget the crisis? To fill us, either by beauty or laughter, with the will to live.” That particular insight doesn’t end there, but I’ll spare you the rest.
It’s a shame, because The Amateurs has potential for compelling drama and stagecraft. But once these metatheatrical antics begin, the momentum grinds to a halt and I found myself unspeakably bored by Mr. Jordan’s self-indulgent nonsense. His ideas are not original enough to warrant the excessive monologuing, not properly shaped by and with the story he claims he is trying to tell. When Branden Jacobs-Jenkins turned himself into the main character of An Octoroon, it was a revelatory move which allowed him to address all kinds of questions about our relationship to art. When Mr. Jordan does the same, he is simply taking a shortcut, offering us the Spark Notes for his own text.
At one point, the playwright brings out three actors wearing sandwich boards, each depicting the Madonna painted at various moments in the history of European art. It is a perfect analogy for The Amateurs: this is a play that uses its cast as props, as a blackboard onto which Mr. Jordan scrawls his stale academic treatise.
The Amateurs runs through March 29th at the Vineyard Theatre. 108 E. 15th Street New York, NY. 1 hour 30 minutes. No intermission.