There is exactly one perceptive sentence of dialogue in “Chasing Heaven,” now playing through August 26 at CSV Flamboyan as part of the 15th Annual New York International Fringe Festival. It comes rather late in the proceedings, when the two main characters, in grudging collaboration on a rewrite of a very familiar-sounding piece of iconic theater, come to an impasse over whether or not to cut a villain dubbed Trout Bait from the revised version. One argues that Trout Bait is a racist and offensive portrayal of Blackness: a lying, gambling boozer. The other points out that, while Trout Bait may be all of those things, the show can’t afford to lose him because “he moves the work along and he gets to sing a lot of great stuff.”
This line gets at the most basic tenet of live theater, and what should separate even the most cerebral, “issues”-minded work from a debate in a freshman “Race and Diversity” lecture: A play is, above all else, a story. It helps immensely if that play also has characters interesting enough to make an audience care about whatever story that is. This, unfortunately, is a concept that “Chasing Heaven” fails to grasp, making the bit about Trout Bait memorable only for making me desperately wish it were heeded.
The play chronicles the creative struggle of Kinshasa “Tree” Morton (Christine Campbell), a Pulitzer Prize-winning black novelist commissioned to rewrite “Chasing Heaven,” a broadly drawn, dialect-heavy black folk opera from the 1930s, and make it more palatable to modern audiences. Along the way, she is haunted by the ghost of show’s creator, famed Tin Pan Alley composer/lyricist Joshua Gerwitz (Greg Horton), who is ticked off by the way Morton is tampering with his most famous work. The timeline of the plot shifts between Gerwitz writing what he originally titled “Chasing Hebben” in 1935 and an artistically blocked Morton pacing around a skeletally furnished room of the Gerwitz estate in 2008. These chronological jumps couldn’t be more straightforward; nevertheless, an enthusiastic “curator” (Daniel Carlton) is on hand to announce each one, in case anyone gets confused.
It is always inspiring to see the amount of new theater being developed in New York. Though not always commercially or artistically successful, new plays are heartening; their presence suggests that there are brave artists out in the world who will continue to create, seemingly unscathed by the cruelties of “the business.” These artists make for a positive evening at the theater.
The Workshop Theater Company provides a stage for many of these bourgeoning talents, through their various reading series, workshops and mainstage productions, some specifically focused on a particular culture or subculture. Their latest venture, “I Laughed, I Cried…5 Short Plays to Make You Ferklempt” explores the heart and hardships of the Jewish faith from different angles by different writers.
First up is “A Walk in His Shoes,” which is based on a true story from author Timothy Scott Harris’s own family history. Set in modern-day Poland, we see Gabriel (Noah Keen), an escapee from his small town prior to the Nazi occupation, return home for the first time to a festival honoring those who were forced out nearly 70 years ago. Gabriel is unsettled by the showy nature of this homecoming, and voices his regret of a culture gone and forgotten from the city it built. The basis of this piece is powerful — a new and interesting look at a post-war situation on the other side of the world. Yet while Keen’s performance is strong, the would-be reconciliation that eventually comes is rushed and not fully fleshed out, leaving him with an emotional journey that lacks a real payoff.