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A CurtainUp Review
Broken Journey

By Elyse Sommer

Elise Stone & Craig Smith
Elise Stone & Craig Smith
The name of Andre (Michael Surabian), the murder victim in Broken Journey is something of a running joke. It's never clear why he dropped the w for a more Frenchified version of Andrew. As his girlfriend Chloe (Elise Stone) declares at one point "He dropped the w or it dropped him. The r and the e are restless, so soon his name will be And. And there'll be no knowing."

This not being able to know the real reason for the name change can be interpreted symbolically. After all, there's also no way of knowing all the details pertaining to the bloody rape and murder at the abandoned roadside where Andre and Chloe are stranded because their car ran out of gas -- and where Troy (Craig Smith), a biker who made eye contact with Chloe when they were still zipping along the highway has followed them.

This play's plot which is built around repeated attempts to ferret out the truth about the motivations and details of a woman's rape and her companion's violent death is of course an updated version of Akutagawa story "In a Grove" and Kurosawa's film Rashomon. The story's basic question about how different participants and witness bring different interpretations and memories to an event so that the full truth is likely to remain elusive is universal and ever provocative enough to lend itself to adaptations and updates. Still, it takes a special something to rival the classic Kurosawa film which, thanks to modern technology, is readily available for home viewing. The adventurous composer/lyricist Michael John LaChiusa, brought that needed special something to his beautiful musical See What I Wanna See (my review) which encompassed a triptych of Akutagawa stories. By using "The Dragon" to create an ancient Japan flavored overture to the two other stories, one of which was "In a Grove," LaChiusa was able to give a century spanning flavor his modern segments.

Typical of the coincidences that occasionally strike like lightning in two minds at the same time, the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, a new spin-off company formed last year by Jean Cocteau company members picked Glyn Maxwell's adaptation as the first production of its second season. But unlike La Chiusa's The Wild Party which ended up competing with another musical based on the same source material, See What I Wanna See and Broken Journey represent completely different theatrical genres. Seeing LaChiusa's groundbreaking musical actually whetted my interest in seeing Mr. Maxwell's adaptation and at the same time check out the Phoenix Ensemble since I missed their first offering, a well-received revival of Kafka's The Trial

Much as I'd like to report that Broken Journey improves upon or is as gripping as Akutagawa's story or the Kurosawa's film, neither Mr. Maxwell's script or the actors come close to achieving the richness of either or involving the audience with the four people who replay their version of what happened at that deserted roadside. The playwright sticks to the basic set-up of having the murder recreated from the various points of view. His ill-fated couple is unmarried. Their journey home from a fancy reunion dance is broken by an empty gas tank. The first suspect interviewed by an unseen policeman is a leather-clad biker who claims that it was love that made him follow them -- love at first sight no less, sparked by an our "eyes locked and held moment " as his bike passed the car before it sputtered to a halt.

Mr. Smith, a capable actor, is miscast as Troy, the biker. Sure, you can see middle-aged and older guys speeding along the highways on their high-powered two-wheelers, but seeing the white-haired actor in this role makes it even harder to be engaged by his lengthy, overly poetic monologues. Elise Stone's Chloe is also weighed down by the virtual avalanche of dialogue with which Maxwell seems to encourage scenery chewing and which director Ted Altschuler does little to tone down. The flowing black hair and the frequency with which she pulls off her dress to display her cleavage adds a visual component to the scenery chewing.

The younger cast members give less overwrought performances but anyone who is familiar with the story will find the two hours without intermission excruciatingly slow and talky. Even Narelle Sissons' effective set -- complete with a real car -- and Tony Mulanix's trenchant lighting can't keep you from looking at your watch and wish you were home watching a DVD of Rashomon.

Adapted by Glyn Maxwell from Akutagawa story "In a Grove" and Kurosawa's film Rashomon
Directed by Ted Altschuler
Cast: Craig Smith, Michael Surabian, Elise Stone, Sheila O'Malley and Joe Rayome
Set Design: Narelle Sissons
Costume Design: Nicole Frachiseur
Lighting Design: Tony Mulanix
Sound Design: Betsy Rhodes
Fight Director: J. Steven White.
Dramaturg: J. Scott Reynolds

Running time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission.
Phoenix Theatre Ensemble at Theatre Three, 311 W. 43 St. 3rd floor, 212-352-3101
. From 11/12/05 to 12/10/05; opening 11/16/05.
Tickets: $19
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on performance
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