Vision Disturbance at Abrons Arts Center

Not too long ago I felt that the more theater I saw, the more I preferred dance. I was frustrated by what seemed like an overabundance of words. Too many words trying to explain too much and taking too long to do it. So it was refreshing to see the spare and compact Vision Disturbance, a new play by Christina Masciotti, directed by Richard Maxwell. Masciotti’s economical approach to language demonstrates how much you can do with less, drawing full portraits of complicated characters and telling a simple but profound story of human connection.

In Vision Disturbance Mondo, a middle-aged Greek immigrant woman living in the small-town of Reading, Pennsylvania, is going through a divorce from her traditional Greek husband. The resulting stress manifests in an eye disorder that features a loss of depth perception among other perplexing symptoms. She seeks treatment from Dr. Hull who uses an unorthodox approach involving music therapy to help her regain her eyesight. Dr. Hull has his own problems, chronic back pain that has led him to abuse painkillers. Mondo is strong and forthright, a no-nonsense type who is not used to being incapacitated. Dr. Hull is less assertive, a lonely bachelor who lives with his mother and an aging cat. As their respective lives fall apart and become unstructured, Mondo and Dr. Hull find each other, and new meaning.

It is easy to see why Richard Maxwell was drawn to Christina Masciotti’s writing. They share an interest in regular people, in excavating the poetry of everyday language and experience. Masciotti has a gift for finding small moments and mining them for meaning:

“In the house, I had to wash my hands and I was looking at the sink. I couldn’t think how to touch the faucet to turn it. I never thought before, how do I turn the faucet? But looking at it, at that moment, there was nothing to grab, so I didn’t know how I was gonna turn the damn thing. Finally, I just closed my eyes and felt for it. With both eyes closed, I could feel a part of something. Only with my eyes closed. I felt like I could see better closing my eyes. I could see what I remember, and I could feel the rest. Most of the time that’s what I did. I just closed my eyes and pretty soon, I felt like I was part of the world again. But the world was black, so that became my world. The rest was somebody else’s pictures.”

Both Linda Mancini as Mondo and Jay Smith as Dr. Hull bring a gentle, humorous, pathos to the proceedings. They are gifted, understated performers that allow the language to do most of the work. They deliver their lines in the affectless style one associates with Maxwell’s work, but are simultaneously adept at conveying the inner lives of the characters.

With the notable exception of last year’s Ads, Maxwell’s recent outings as a playwright (Ode to the Man Who Kneels, People Without History) have been increasingly poetic, baroque and fantastical. This collaboration with Masciotti feels a little bit like a return to earlier work, with a focus on recognizable, contemporary characters and commonplace situations. And that’s not a bad thing. In my mind Ads seemed like a capitulation to the techno-trend in downtown theater – towards more video, more gizmos, more tricks and less meaning. It was refreshing and exciting to see a master of simplicity like Maxwell bring his talent to the work of a new writer who is exploring similar territory. Vision Disturbance is a thoroughly enjoyable evening in the theater and a reminder that, sometimes, all you need is a few chairs, strong actors and good, insightful writing.

Vision Disturbance plays through September 18th at Abrons Arts Center.

For further reading check out this interview with Masciotti in the Brooklyn Rail.

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