Theater Review: ‘Grasses of a Thousand Colors,’ at the Public Theater

Written By Unknown on Selasa, 29 Oktober 2013 | 16.44

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Grasses of a Thousand Colors, at the Public Theater, stars Julie Hagerty, standing, and, from left, Emily Cass McDonnell, Wallace Shawn and Jennifer Tilly.

The lecture has only just begun on the Shiva stage at the Public Theater, and yet, already, your eyelids are getting heavy, so heavy. That disagreeable man at the podium, shiny with self-satisfaction, has promised to read from his memoirs, and the tome in front of him is the size of the collected works of Joyce Carol Oates. His voice is a nasal, complacent drone that could put a rabid pit bull to sleep.

But the state of hypnosis into which you subsequently fall, and remain for roughly three hours, is no coma of boredom. It's more like one of those dreams that make you writhe and sweat and cry out in your sleep.

It seems that you've fallen into a fairy tale, a nasty and erotic fairy tale that, no matter how bewitching it seems at moments, murmurs a cautionary whisper all the while: Something is very wrong in this world, it says, and life may not be any better when you wake up. So, thank you (I guess), Wallace Shawn, for guiding us so skillfully into your personal nightmare, and making it feel like our very own.

Mr. Shawn is the star and author of this lyrical, creepy and richly detailed (and, oh yes, pornographic) dreamscape, which goes by the name of "Grasses of a Thousand Colors" and opened on Monday night. Part of the Public Theater and Theater for a New Audience's celebration of the four-decade collaboration between Mr. Shawn and the director André Gregory, "Grasses" follows this summer's superb revival of "The Designated Mourner," a political fable of moral cowardice that made anyone with a conscience squirm.

"Grasses," which I first saw at the Royal Court Theater in London four years ago, is also guaranteed to make anyone uncomfortable, though partly for different reasons, including detailed descriptions of exotic sex that the Marquis de Sade might shrink from. Like "Mourner," "Grasses" could be described as the diary of a narcissist. But this particular egomaniac, Ben (a lovely name that I have previously associated only with the meek and humble of the earth), is even less conscious of his toxic character flaws than Jack, the passive protagonist of "Mourner."

This is especially unfortunate since Ben, a scientist and doctor, is powerful and smart enough to change the basic ecology of the world. When we first see him at the podium, Ben (played by Mr. Shawn, as Jack was) is in poor health and, he says, incapable of remembering even what happened yesterday.

Yet the memories do indeed start rising, miasma-like, with the assistance of women from Ben's past, played by three delicious actresses: Julie Hagerty, as Ben's wife, Cerise; Jennifer Tilly as Robin, his mistress; and Emily Cass McDonnell as Rose, one of his later girlfriends.

Though these women are all unforgettable, Ben's most memorable partner in Kama Sutra diversions is a cat named Blanche, whom we never actually meet. Or do we? Ben lives in a world of transformations, the most unpleasant of which can be laid directly at his feet.

Ben made his fortune by solving world hunger. This was achieved by developing a special grain that alters the metabolisms of animals in ways that allow them to feed on their own kind and to multiply at unprecedented rates. If you hear a rumble of apocalypse in that description, your ears do not deceive you.

This basic information is delivered early, from the podium. After that, Ben pretty much retires to that long white sofa that occupies much of the stage. He is soon joined on that sofa by one or several of the aforementioned women, who alternate narratives that are mostly about Ben's exceptionally varied sex life.

Ben may be the most phallocentric character ever conceived for the stage. His penis, he says, is his best friend, possibly his only friend. And when he describes his erotic escapades, his penis accompanies him as a separate and indispensable companion, as if it were Leporello to his Don Giovanni. And, oh, the places they go! This includes a marvelous castle in the woods that might have been devised by the Brothers Grimm in concert with Pauline Réage (of "The Story of O").

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