Although billed as “an intimate immersive production,” what “Stars in the Night” actually offers, at its best, is the exact opposite — a spectacular public setting. An audience of no more than a dozen at a time are led through several locations indoors and outdoors in DUMBO, a Brooklyn neighborhood that feels inherently theatrical: It has its own dramatic Chiaroscuro lighting, a backdrop of magnificent bridges and distinctive, gentrified 19th century buildings, and a colorful cast of passersby who, on a night with good weather, crowd the cobbled streets and newly green parkland on the river’s edge.
Unfortunately, most of the show’s characters, portrayed by eight members of the Los Angeles-based company Firelight Collective, are not much more developed during the show than those passersby. The story they act out is vague, arty, clichéd and confusing – so much so that some 90 minutes after the show began and a cast member deposited us on Jay Street, the other theatergoers and I stood around waiting for the next performer to come along and lead us somewhere, not realizing “Stars in the Night” had come to an end.
Part of the problem about the show was a practical one. My hearing is not good enough to have discerned everything the first three characters were saying beneath the subway trains roaring directly overhead on the Manhattan Bridge. But even if I had, the setting was too distracting to want to pay attention.
The first character, (identified in the program given out at the end only as “the man in the orange tie,” and portrayed by Matt Brown), had met us at the start of the show, on the roof of Empire Stores. Originally a 19thcentury coffee roasting factory, the building has been turned into an urban mall and office building, with some exquisite views of the New York skyline. Empire Stores is just down the block from the renovated 19thcentury tobacco warehouse that the theater St. Ann’s Warehouse moved into in 2015. The area, in other words, is in a fascinating transition, and as the orange-tied man, dressed in a beige suit and carrying a beat-up brown briefcase, took us on a kind of walking tour from the mall along the shore, the glittering sights were frankly more engaging than his patter, which was about his regrets over a woman whom he lost.
The man talked longingly and metaphorically about the stars in the sky, and then said goodbye, leaving us there standing under the bridge. Not long afterward, we were approached by another man, Finn (William Nicol), carrying a skateboard and for some reason wearing a hand woven bamboo Vietnamese farmer’s hat. He also talked vaguely about lost love; a theme had emerged. He too left, and was followed by Jamie (Jennifer Sacks) who was talking on a cell phone with (we eventually learned) her mother. Still talking on the phone (which was no less annoying than when a friend does that to you), she took us to a nearby closed art gallery, Canton Projects. She unlocked the door and shooed us into the cluttered interior, gesturing for us to take seats. She turned on some music, danced, and eventually left. From inside the gallery then, Caitlin (Hannah Broderick Craft) emerged, sang a song, and brought us back outside, where we met by far the most entertaining character of the night.
Alice (Davonna Dehay) was our real estate agent, showing us available properties. She brought us onto John Street, which on one side has some beautiful old buildings and, on the other, an ugly electric power plant on the other. “Oh,” says Alice, ever the saleswoman, “that’s not a power plant; it’s some kind of funky art project.”
Alice ushered us to an elegant private house on the street, where we were offered some cheese and liquor (courtesy of a distillery and a couple of food stores listed as “partners” in the program), and where we met the final three characters. A haunting and haunted figure, Nicole (Deanne Noe) alternated stage time with a bickering couple Clay and Alex (David Haley and Allison Byrnes.) It was in this living room/dining room where we spent the bulk of our time, and where a more discernible story unfolded, for those determined to parse out the clues. (Nicole had an affair with Clay, which upset Alex. There’s some evidence that one of them is Jamie’s mother.)
In the last scene in the house, the lights were suddenly extinguished save for a dim blue bulb, and Nicole walked out as if in a daze, naked (though this was barely discernible in the dark.) She talked of having escaped a relationship and taking a train to Montauk, where she saw dolphins swimming in the moonlight. She said she regrets nothing about her life, “because that’s life; when you love hard, you lose hard….The only thing that I would’ve done differently, if I had the chance, waited it out a little longer. The way I see it from here, it’s all beautiful, the pain, the struggle…. all of it…I see all of you and your lives are beautiful. I should’ve left it to the stars in the night….”
It was in some ways a visually beautiful and poignant moment, but this was despite the poetic-sounding words Noe spoke, not because of them. Nicole’s last line, repeating the show’s trite title, seemed to exemplify its basic flaw. The creative team seems to have focused more on lining up locations and sponsors than exercising their imagination with freshness and with rigor.
The actors, for the most part, do what they can with what they’re given. At the very least, their commitment is obvious. (A shout-out to the ninth member of the cast, Benjamin Chase, who fell and broke his jaw one night after rehearsals, and is recuperating after surgery.)
The cast is largely intact from the production of “Stars in the Night” that Firelight presented last year in Los Angeles; the show has transferred apparently with little changed despite the vastly different landscapes. In L.A., a couple of reviewers were enthusiastic about the show (although it’s not clear that they had any firmer grasp of what the story was specifically about.)
I suspect reaction in New York will be different. Seven years after Punch Drunk Theater’s “Sleep No More” first took up residence at the McKittrick Hotel (a formerly abandoned club in Chelsea specifically renovated for the show), New York has been inundated with shows calling themselves immersive. We have become familiar with the meticulously designed, fully developed, story-driven immersive theater by companies like Punch Drunk and Third Rail (Then She Fell, Ghost Light,Grand Paradise)and the vigorous, elaborately roaming site-specific shows by companies like the Woodshed Collective , as well as the re-emergence of pioneer En Garde Arts . As a result, New Yorkers seem less likely to be wowed simply by the novelty of having to walk from scene to scene.
Stars in the Night
Written and directed by Stephanie Feury & Nathan Keyes
Production Design by Matt Pulliam.
Cast: Matt Brown, Allison Byrnes, Davonna Dehay, David Haley, Hannah Broderick Kraft, William Nicol, Deanna Noe, and Jennifer Sacks
Running time: About 90 minutes
“Stars in the Night” is scheduled to run through October 14, 2018