Reviewed By Gregor Collins
A tall, dark and charismatic leading man is what traditionally sells tickets, but when it comes to the NYC-debut of Manufacturing Mischief—the play by puppeteer and sculptor Pedro Reyes running at The Tank Theater from June 5-24—it’s actually a short, pasty, anarcho-syndicalist that gets audiences pulling out their wallets.
“I met with Noam Chomsky and he agreed to become a puppet,” Reyes deadpans about his unlikely leading man, during the post-play Q&A, which, it pains me to say, was the most compelling part of the evening, due to a script not nearly clever and fluid enough to give Reyes’ delightfully irreverent vision the show it deserves.
Chomsky, the legendary philosopher, historian and political activist, headlines a satirical play featuring all puppet characters based on Chomsky, Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and, which seems just about right—Tiny Trump. It was conceived 11 years ago as Reyes’ residency as the inaugural Dasha Zhukova distinguished visiting artist at the MIT center for Art, Science and Technology.
Reyes, a professor at MIT, had the opportunity to meet with Professor Chomsky in 2007, to whom he proposed making a play—what Reyes tells the audience is a kind of “Marxist Sesame Street”—featuring Chomsky as the protagonist. Chomsky approved the synopsis but, to date, hasn’t seen the actual, living play. (C’mon, Noam, you’re 89… live a little).
Through imagined exchanges between some of the most fascinating iconoclasts in world history, Mischief is mostly interested in mocking the tech heroes at the vanguard of the techno-optimism movement (Musk is the brunt of this), questioning the destruction of labor through technology, and being caustically honest about the social costs that occur from embracing technology.
Reyes deserves kudos for his deftly handcrafted, Japanese-inspired puppets occasionally delivering highbrow, galvanizing insights about our current zeitgeist, but with a scattershot script, having no real narrative and no hero to care about or feel anything for—it’s a tiny bit heartbreaking to think that such an extraordinary concept is being made ordinary by what’s on the page. In Reyes’ defense he didn’t pen the script (it was penned by Playwright Paul Hufker), which is why Reyes would benefit from a better writer to give Chomsky a through-line and some motivation (ie What is he fighting for? What does he really, truly want? The lack of this underlying dramatic tension causes most of the exchanges to fall flat). Reyes would also benefit from professional voice-actors. Most of them seemed to lack even a rudimentary understanding of how to project and articulate to an audience.
But here’s the good news: You should see it. Not really for the show, but for what comes after the show. Meeting and listening to The Most Interesting Man at MIT, Pedro Reyes, commanding the audience Q&A with his endearing laconic, lighthearted wisdom, is alone worth the price of a ticket. Directed by The Tank Co-Artistic Director Meghan Finn.
Manufacturing Mischief: The ‘Marxist Sesame Street plays now through June 24, 2018 plays at The Tank 312 W 36th St. http://www.thetanknyc.com