Lust was the best. Everybody seemed to agree, and it wasn’t just because Cynthia Nixon was in the cast. But, in truth, none of the eight short plays by some of America’s most original playwrights are what is most thrilling about “The Seven Deadly Sins,” the site-specific theatrical anthology taking place in makeshift storefronts and outdoor stages in the Meatpacking District. What’s most exciting is that the audience members could watch them (and discuss them) together, live and in person.
“Isn’t it good to be out of the house?” Shuga Cain said to us sweetly, in the first play, “Purgatory,” as the 60 of us sat in rows of folding chairs in front of a makeshift stage on Gansevoort Street, across from the Whitney Museum. We were wearing headphones, as Shuga (the drag name of Jesus Martinez Jr, who was a “fan favorite” in Rupaul’s Drag Race 11thseason), first lip-synced to “I Feel a Sin Comin’ On” by the girl band Pistol Annies, stripping off her nun’s habit to reveal a flashy and then explained her personal philosophy about sin (as scripted by playwright Jeffrey LaHoste and Moisés Kaufman, the artistic director of Tectonic Theater Project, and the director of all eight plays):
“’Sinning’ is just the old way of saying human nature. After all, if you think about it, all sins arise from love. Envy arises from the love of what others have, gluttony comes from the distorted love of food, lust from the greedy love of carnal pleasures! See…. And since human beings were born to love, maybe we were born to sin too. “
(This made me wonder. If love inspires the seven sins, what causes the seven virtues — prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope and charity — and will the Tectonic Theater Project and Madison Wells Live produce a sequel, or would there be no market for that?)
One might infer from Shuga’s monologue that there would be a consistent theme and tone to the seven two-character plays that followed. But as we were split up into three groups of about 20 theatergoers apiece, and led to each of the plays in random order, it became clear that the tone and the quality of the scripts vary widely. What tied them all together was the consistency of the acting and of David Rockwell’s gorgeous set designs and Dede Ayite’s costumes, as well as the communal experience of traveling from sin to sin.
First up, arrayed side by side on Gansevoort Street, were Gluttony, Pride and Sloth – the signs above each storefront window advertised the sins, although each play has a specific title (which you can dig up in the digital program.)
“Tell Me Everything You Know” by Ngozi Anyanwu reworks the Biblical story of Eve and the apple, in a confusingly loose definition of gluttony, with Morgan McGhee as the Eve-like character, eager to take a bite of Shavanna Calder’s apple, with predictable results.
In “Wild Pride” by MJ Kaufman, Cody Sloan portrays a trans man who has made himself into a YouTube “guru,” who sells pride (sometimes literally: “check out my Workouts for Embodied pride series.”) His pep talks and advice to his queer or questioning followers (all portrayed by Bianca Norwood) leadeth to their fall. This makes the Guru concede that “sometimes showing our pride costs us.” It’s a brave and witty, if over-busy unmasking of one of the LGBT community’s most sacred buzzwords (during Pride Month no less!), and ends with the perfect punch line.
In “Hard,” by Thomas Bradshaw, Sandra (Shamika Cott) tries to get her fat, lazy husband Jeff (a pitch-perfect Brandon J. Ellis) to have sex with her, but he’s too busy playing a multi-player video game. That the play becomes increasingly graphic should surprise nobody who knows Bradshaw’s work, but it’s also funny and, as outlandish as it is, pointed.
After we watched those three plays, our guide led us to 13th Street, narrating the history of the Meatmarket district along the way, pointing out the sites of the former sex clubs, to highlight how apt the location of these plays.
In Ming Pfeiffer’s “Longhorn,” the pretend-violence of Asian-American dominatrix (Kahyun Kim) and client (Brad Fleischer) turns into something more real and more menacing – hooking, a bit too glibly, into what’s been happening in our country.
“Naples” by Jeffrey LaHoste takes place in the Palace of Versailles around 1700, involving the aging Princess Charlotte (Caitlin O’Connell) scheming against her husband’s young lover, Philippe (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), which seems less clearly about envy, than lust, or revenge (the latter admittedly not officially a sin.), but in any case it seems an odd fit for a boxy stage in the middle of 13th Street in Manhattan, even though it’s still paved with cobblestones.
In Moisés Kaufman’s clever, funny “Watch,” Leo (Eric Ulloa) and his sister Vivian (standout Tricia Alexandro) are attending their father’s funeral, but Leo is aghast and outraged that his father had left instructions with the undertaker to bury him with his $233,000 Rolex watch. There is a twisty end that I should have seen coming, but what’s most delightful about this play is Vivian’s interaction with a series of (unseen, unheard) mourners, in which we don’t have to work hard to imagine their side of the conversation (“37. Not married. No boyfriend. I have a job…”)
And finally we come to “Lust” by Bess Wohl, the most unusual and the most rewarding of the plays. To passersby, it would not look like a play at all, just pole dancing, albeit in a storefront rather than a strip club. And indeed, Donna Carnow’s bio describes her as “a Brooklyn-based pole dancer, movement artist, choreographer, teacher, performer, pole champion, and aerialist.” But here where the headphones come into play (which in most of the plays I found just a necessary inconvenience, and the device even conked out on me a couple of times.) While she’s dancing, we hear her thoughts, voiced by Cynthia Nixon – a dazzling monologue that mixes to-do lists, reminiscences, imagined conversations with her kid, complaints about her back…until she spots somebody who has come into the club, and then suddenly we’re thrust into her sense of urgency, fear, and alarm, leading us to feel (without completely understanding) the mix of lust and violence that is a mark of modern society.
Indeed, although several of the pieces in “Seven Deadly Sins” deserve similar credit, Wohl’s “Lust” is the most effective at translating into modern times the real-life consequences of a so-called cardinal sin (a vice that leads to even worse behavior), a concept that many people these days — certainly many of the New Yorkers drawn to the Meatpacking District for dinner and a show– would dismiss as something quaint and ancient.
Seven Deadly Sins is performing three times a night (except Mondays) through July 25.
Running time: approximately two hours
Tickets: $55 – $75