These days, it’s difficult to convince my friends to join me for a one-person show. The list of potential takers has dwindled after cringing through dozens of solipsistic productions designed for actors to show off their facility with a multitude of accents and acting styles. The one-person format makes complete economic sense: no need to pay other actors, deal with expensive sets or costumes, and the entire thing can usually be transported to any space—no matter how rudimentary. Unfortunately it often feels like an extended audition, an actor’s resume made flesh.
That’s one reason Nilaja Sun’s No Child felt like a gift. Sure, the verbal gymnastics are there and she manages to cycle through a variety of characters at breakneck speed, but instead of focusing on herself, Sun’s story gives voice to a population that would otherwise be ignored with a commitment and honesty that truly inspires.
No Child is based on Sun’s attempt to work with students in New York City’s public schools and focuses on students in Malcolm X High in the Bronx. In it she plays the school’s aging male janitor, a mousy Asian teacher, an uptight Jamaican security guard as well as close to a dozen students—from the sassy Shondrika, arrogant baller Jerome and geeky Brian. She also plays a version of herself, a passionate, open actor who can light up a room with her smile and plans to use theater to change the students’ world-view. Of course, that sounds like a doomed idea, but Sun presents the story—which could easily be passed over as yet another uplifting inner-city school lesson—with such enthusiasm, energy and humor that I, like my friends, was rapt.
Obvious comparisons can be made to Sarah Jones’ Bridge & Tunnel, which also focused on underrepresented New Yorkers, but that doesn’t mean that Sun’s electric character shifts should be written off as tired. Her critique of both the education system, as well as the students who suffer in it, stings without becoming preachy, and her facility at inhabiting so many meticulously defined individuals is breathtaking. The show has already received its fair share of acclaim and is one of the best intimate theater experiences of the year.
Iris Bahr attempts to do something similar with her one-woman performance Dai (enough). She chose to set her narrative in a cosmopolitan Tel Aviv café filled with interesting, articulate individuals who all have a story to tell before dying at the hands of a Palestinian suicide bomber. Beginning as a manic, type-A British reporter looking to get the Israeli perspective concerning the ongoing conflict, she begins interviewing the café’s clientele.
First, we get a fast-talking Californian doing research about a Middle East-blockbuster about a suicide bomber. But her story (being told to a friend back home on a cell phone, naturally) is cut short by a loud explosion and screams—she has her firsthand suicide bomb experience all right. Bahr slowly falls to the floor and languidly moves to another table, dons a piece of clothing and becomes her next character, a cheery grandfather, who then begins his own monologue.
The same sequence is repeated 10 more times as each person—a Russian prostitute, German furniture maker, a Dutch ecstasy dealer, an evangelical American Christian developer (ready to build the new Jerusalem now!)—relays his or her story until the bomb goes off and the person is snuffed out. One of the best moments is the squawky American girl who decided to leave the comfort of New York and her dead-end life to join the Israeli army. Her story of boredom and looking for adventure could be a stand-in for many a Williamsburg dweller.
Bahr’s willingness to give voice to supporters and detractors raises complex questions, and she refuses to provide any answers. But despite the multiplicity of original and diverse perspectives presented, Bahr shies away from having a dialogue on the subject. The only Palestinian we hear from is a female professor who agrees with many of the policies and is labeled a traitor by her own people. And the suicide bomber, the only other Palestinian, is left faceless—an unknowable, abominable threat who destroys these “innocents.” Unlike Sun’s No Child, the characters in Dai (enough) end up feeling like an exhibit of Bahr’s ability to swiftly change accent and age. Because of this, she ultimately fails to uncover a new outlook on a subject that easily exhausts most people and would benefit from a more exuberant approach.
No Child, open-ended run. Barrow Street Theatre, 27
Barrow St. (at 7th Ave. S.), 212-239-6200; $25-$55.
Dai (enough), Jan. 4-open-ended run. Culture Project, 55 Mercer St. (at Broome St.), 866-811-4111; $35-$55.