“The Amateurs,” by Jordan Harrison, a 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Marjorie Prime,” is a formidably ambitious morality play within a morality play preoccupied with survival. But under the muddled direction of Oliver Butler, it is freighted with too many ideas for its own good.
Set in 14th century Europe, the eager comedy follows a motley band of nomadic actors bent on delivering the Holy Scriptures to the masses. The gutsy Harrison, however, refuses to follow the rules, allowing his characters to think and speak in contemporary mode. Meta-theatrics abound.
Larking (Thomas Jay Ryan), the company leader who plays God in their productions, is described, sarcastically, as a “big strapping slice of man-meat.”
But all is not well. The troupe is trying to outrun the Black Death, and it becomes clear that parallels are being drawn to other plagues like the AIDS pandemic (soon after one of the actors mysteriously dies, his secret male lover develops hideous KS-like lesions) and the World War II Holocaust. For much of the proceedings, we view clunky iterations of Noah’s Ark, the ultimate story of extermination.
The troupe also stages a strained rendition of the Seven Deadly Sins that would barely pass muster in a grade school. There are only six actors, so one must portray two sins.
Midway through, the story is stopped cold by an actor (a deliciously engaging Michael Cyril Creighton) playing an actor (named Gregory, who creates the sets and special effects for the productions) playing the Playwright (Harrison). Got that?
So they bump up the house lights and the Playwright tries to elucidate the play’s motifs of humanity and mortality and individuality. He tells anecdotes about his sixth grade health teacher explaining the origins of AIDS and gives a lesson on the increasingly naturalistic depiction of the Madonna and Child in art history — the evolution from icon to woman.
“Maybe there’s no one in charge,” the Playwright says. “Maybe we can act for ourselves, maybe we can go off script.”
Then Quincy Tyler Bernstine, the actress who plays the troupe’s leading lady, takes the stage to further discuss the value of going rogue.
For sure, “The Amateurs” is yet another riff on Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players,” which itself is a riff on similar themes that can be traced as far back as Petronius. It also recalls Pirandello’s absurdist gem “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” except here the characters are irksomely underdeveloped.
In her extended monologue, Bernstine recounts her portrayal of Mrs. Cratchit in “A Christmas Carol,” where the line between herself and her character became hopelessly blurred. “I mean, who am I and who is the audience? Who are you? Please don’t answer. It’s not that kind of play.”
Pity there are too many jarring themes and thoughts flying around onstage for us to figure out, or care, what kind of play this really is.
THE AMATEURS | Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th St., btwn. Union Square E. & Irving Pl. | Through Mar. 18: Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m. | $79-$99 at VineyardTheatre.org or 212-353-0303 | 90 mins., no intermission