Laugh It Up

I saw a very unusual play called “Laugh It Up, Stare It Down,” by screenwriter-playwright Alan Hruska, at Cherry Lane Theater this week.

It’s about the love between two eccentric savants, a currency trader and an anthropologist. Its reviews are all over the place. “If an existentialist philosopher ever attempted a light romantic comedy, it might sound a little like…” says one, by a writer who was obviously taken enough to agree to hand over some fodder for the poster. “Quaintly absurdist,” says another.

Jayce Bartok and Katya Campbell in “Laugh It Up, Stare It Down" till October 10th.

Jayce Bartok and Katya Campbell in “Laugh It Up, Stare It Down” till October 10th.

Others had a more critical take, but handled it with kid loves anyway, as in, “Perhaps [it] does not fully answer the question of the attainability of ecstatic love but I am not sure that was the point,” while others were more pointed: “I wanted to read the play to see if there was some glaring bit of information that would, upon resurfacing, pull the play together into a work that made sense.”

I too went euphemistic when I called it “unusual.” “Difficult” may have been better, though “odd” says it best – the shortest, most Anglo word, as usual, getting to the point the quickest. Like the reviewers, I guess I liked this play despite itself.

Hruska is best known as the writer and director of films, and “Laugh It Up, Stare It Down” takes place over the course of a marriage, a scale that few playwrights would ever choose. It both raises your expectations and opens a trap door under any feelings for this couple that start to accumulate in your mind.

Yet it’s crystal clear, even after the first scene, that that’s really not what the writer’s going for. Feelings, I mean. Every character in “Laugh It Up, Stare It Down” has instant access to his intentions, and nearly instant insight into the others’ as well. It’s 90 minutes of dialogue practically devoid of subtext, which suddenly all made sense to me in the second of three acts when the trader (Jayce Bartok) unexpectedly gets cross-examined about whether he’s having an affair by his wife the anthropologist (Katya Campbell). Now someone was trying to conceal something, and it felt like theater instead of an out-of-body experience.

Then it went back to its break-neck journey to the land of odd surprises, including some poetic flourishes. It’s the kind of play that makes you cheer for the cast more than anything, as in: Wow, this is a difficult premise, and it was built to implode, but they’re going for every scene, and I’m actually enjoying myself.

Does it “work”? Sure, if you’re inclined to see it for what it is: experimental theater hidden in plain sight.

Shooting Day For “Fall To Rise”

Very proud of my friend Jayce Bartok tonight after spending a day helping out on the set of his film “Fall To Rise.” The story is about a dancer who has left dancing to have a child, and the struggles she faces when she returns. It’s about dance, and yet about something more universal: integrating or at least resolving parenthood with one’s creative vocation.

Jayce Bartok on set, revising the afternoon's shot list.

Jayce Bartok on set, revising the afternoon’s shot list.

Jayce and his wife Tiffany, who is producing, are two of the kindest people I’ve ever met in the movie business. They are walking, talking examples of  the principle that lots of working actors and crew members leverage to succeed: They are easy to work with, and easy to be with. When they speak, they mean what they say. They are also generous with favors for their friends.

It didn’t surprise me in the least that someone at the Baryshnikov Art Center on 37th Street hooked them up with dance studio space to shoot in. I mean that in the vaguest sense. For all I know they paid market rate. When you show up on an independent film shoot, you don’t say “How did you afford this place?” You just do what you do at any shoot: Make yourself useful and keep your hands off the Snickers as long as you can.

This is the second time in a month I’ve been inspired watching directors at work. One thing they have in common: They’re both actors by trade. To the lay person, screenwriting to directing may seem like a natural progression. The problem is, writing requires lots of time in one’s office. Acting means being on the set, and time on the set, seeing the creative solutions to practical problems unfold, or not, time after time, is irreplaceable.