The Hunchback Variations feels like a production of Waiting for Godot performed by the Marx Brothers. It is simultaneously high-brow and silly. Although I would have to say it’s less effective than Waiting for Godot, and the comedy is less refined than the Marx Brothers. The effect can best be described as “puzzling”.
In The Hunchback Variations, Ludwig van Beethoven and Quasimodo sit on a panel, and discuss their attempts to produce the mysterious and impossible sound described in the stage directions for Anton Checkov’s The Cherry Orchard. If you are perplexed, fear not: everyone else is too. And by the play’s end, little has been done to eliminate your confusion.
My issues with Hunchbacks were almost exclusively with the script (by Mickle Maher). Aaron Bliden and Michal Saltzman do an admirable job as Beethoven and Quasimodo respectively. Their shtick is genuinely funny and gets quite a few laughs. I particularly enjoyed the silly ways in which Saltzman cleared his throat before his monologues. And the show seems well put together, to director Jason Schlafstein’s credit. The lighting, costumes, and sound design all work together to good effect. And yet, one must ask oneself, “why devote this talent to this play?”
This is what I know: the play deals with the basic themes of mortality and futile attempts to escape it. Chekov’s sound becomes a symbol for an artist’s hopeless attempt to create a work which has the power to transcend the artist’s own life. Beyond that… it’s all mush. The dialogue feels intentionally and clumsily obfuscated, as if the playwright were trying to bury the meaning beneath a jumble of incomprehensible allusions and implausible concessions. It is absurdity for absurdity’s sake and obscurity for obscurity’s sake. I enjoy plays that are tough to chew on, but this one was particularly hard to swallow. It did not seem like the play had a lot to say, but rather that it was trying to hide how little it had to offer.
And so we have a charming production of mediocre material. It’s ironic that Maher writes about art that is so memorable that it transcends time. I don’t think The Hunchback Variations will be transcending much time at all.
– In the interest of full disclosure, it turns out I went to college with the director of this play. That has not influenced my review.
The Hunchback Variations
Directed by Jason Schlafstein
Produced by 1st Stage
Reviewed by Josh Fixler (aka 20Something)
Running time: 60 minutes