BOTTOM LINE: An earnest, ambitious and intermittenly interesting new play.
Watching Emily DeVoti's new play Milk was for me like "watching the clouds roll by." Remember lying in green grass on a summer afternoon, dozing and imagining shapes in those distant billowy masses? Maybe that image comes to mind because the play takes place on a bucolic dairy farm, with a charmingly picturesque white-picket-fence-and-clapboard-house set. Or it could be because the many ideas of the play seem to drift by at a leisurely pace, shifting shape as they go. Or because I was consistently lulled into inattention and internal reverie. Whatever the cause, Milk left me with the feeling that, like those clouds, it was all way over my head.
If you're a particularly open-minded and curious theatergoer with a taste for whimsy and a yen for the unconventional ("hybrid live performance" as the HERE mission statement puts it), you may get a kick out of Milk. A program note calls it "a nifty experiment in spiking a lyrical naturalism with moments of more stylized theatricality."
That's the thing about experimental theater; go with no expectations and you may discover something amazing. Milk does have some fun visual flourishes and arresting theatrical inventions. For me, though, it succeeds neither as "well made play" nor theatrical experiment. The metaphors are confused, the ideas hazy (those clouds again), and the characters unconvincing. Neither my heart nor my brain was ever fully engaged. In short, I just plain didn't care.
The year is 1984. President Ronald Reagan is promoting trickle-down economics and making daffy statements about the environment. Meg and Ben are struggling to hold on to the family dairy farm in the face of mounting debt and corporate pressure. Into their lives comes zillionaire businessman James, in a helicopter, no less. (No, this isn't Miss Saigon; the helicopter stays off-stage.) Talk about your deus ex machina. Usually that hoary "god from the sky" device is used to wrap up an unwieldy plot. Here it's used to start one. A story that begins on such a random note loses credibility before it even gets going.
The plot proceeds from there, with a lot of symbolic talk about homogenization, innocence lost, domesticity, and finally, choice. Crisis causes change and things will never be the same, etc. The accomplished actors find sporadic touching moments, but can't achieve any real emotional traction. Director Jessica Bauman does her best to integrate the fanciful with the real but the combination is uneasy at best. As Aristotle once said, "If it ain't on the page it ain't' on the stage." OK, maybe it wasn't Aristotle, but it's still true.
I shouldn't be glibly critical of Milk. Every production of a new American play in New York is a triumph of artistic faith over overwhelming financial odds. New Georges and New Feet, the co-producers of the show, deserve kudos for courage and commitment. So it wasn't my cup of tea; playgoers far more sophisticated than I will surely come away saying that they "Got Milk."
(Milk runs through May 22 at HERE, 145 Sixth Avenue just south of Spring Street. Performances are Mondays thru Saturdays at 8:30 pm. Tickets are $25.00 for general admission, including students and seniors, with a $35.00 reserved premium ticket also available. Monday night performances are "pay-what-you-will" at the door only. To reserve tickets, please visit www.here.org or call 212-352-3101.)