by Hazen Cuyler
James & Jamesy In The Dark, now running at Soho Playhouse thru October 14 and directed by David MacMurray Smith, is an outer space romp exploring our perceptions of life. And although that may sound daunting, its themes are easily accessible thanks to Aaron Malkin’s and Alastair Knowles’ unparalleled charm and playfulness. Something only seasoned clowns could pull off. It’s silly, clean, very sweet and as intelligent as any piece of theatre you’re likely to see this year. And it doesn’t hurt that they wear lampshades on their heads.
We begin in darkness. And then there is one, small, fast-moving light. And then two. They race across a dark abyss until finally beaming to the stage and transforming into our actors. After a bit of stumbling around, they bump into one another and explore a playful and curious existence. There’s no easily discernable story arch here. James & Jamesy is a clowning play and the entire experience feels like a highly talented series of theatre games. One game leads directly into the next. The journey matters more than where they’re going, and that is almost entirely the meaning of the play.
Each new game reveals a desire for companionship, sexuality, a limited ability to perceive the world, limited ability to accurately recall recent history, an instinct for utility, hope for something else beyond this life, to name a few. Each idea is skillfully (and indirectly) expressed with silliness, charm and naiveté. Sexuality, for instance, is portrayed with such modesty and playfulness that we experience it as the overwhelming excitement of not being alone. The sensation of touch for the first time leads to a fit of giggling pleasure. In another game, exploring limits in perspective, James and Jamesy notice each other’s back for the first time. Astonished at this new discovery, they struggle to understand why their friend is incapable of seeing what lies in plain sight. Although these instances may seem frivolous at first glance, it is an inspiring experience as they occur relentlessly.
James, played by Aaron Malkin and Jamesy, played by Alastair Knowles are nothing short of magnetic. Their openness and emotional intelligence is dazzling and their joy while performing this show is infectious. Both have long-standing relationships to director David MacMurray Smith from working with him on several projects in the past. And so we are blessed by a remarkable display of chemistry.
Mr. Smith has orchestrated a profound and tidy work. Not only guiding his actors toward a remarkable and seamless performance, but creating a tantalizing aesthetic not to be missed. At only 75 minutes, it is perhaps the most concentrated expression of minimalism I’ve seen. An unmistakable atmosphere penetrates our instinctual curiosities of existence. Infinite darkness engulfs self-aware lighting. Clothing complements its mood. Grey makeup, grey suits, even the hands of the actors are covered by grey fabric. Upon each head is a lamp shade (the primary source of lighting) attached to what appears to be black boxing headgear. An appealing and otherworldly impression. The entire aesthetic seems familiar and at the same time retains a kind of alien and inorganic presence.
There is a lot to dissect within James & Jamesy In The Dark. But its most powerful quality is kindness. It is a production we need today. It works to bypass our deeply held insecurity of needing to be right. It boldly embraces our investigation into reason and knowledge with a sense of playfulness and companionship so often missing in our adult world. It’s not that James and Jamesy always get along. Throughout the entire play, there is always an underlying tension and conflict. But despite any conflict, fear, insecurity or stupidity, there is an unwavering kindness. James and Jamesy are often frightened by their new discoveries, but together they venture toward them. During the show, house lights rise on the audience. And we sit there with these alien beings. All of us, observing each other, together for the first time. We become a collective. We become a “We.” There is no need for scorn while making mistakes or feeling shame in the face of our own naiveté. There is only moving forward. No shouting. No hateful speech. No insensitivities. Just a resolute and joyful playfulness, trembling as we face our journey, wherever it may go.
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