Broadway review

New York theater returns in ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ and starring you in ‘A Thousand Ways: Part Two’

The Daily Beast

June 30, 2021

In “Seven Deadly Sins,” a tour of Meatpacking District storefronts shows greed and lust on colorful display, while you are the star in “A Thousand Ways: Part Two (An Encounter).”

At one time, New York City’s Meatpacking District was all the things our Seven Deadly Sins guide excitedly told us it was: industrial, edgy, sexually transgressive, with the indisputably brilliant Florent feeding every demographic that passed its portal. Oddly, the façade of Florent is one of the few visible ghosts of those times in the cleaned-up, moneyed, boozy foody streets of now, and even more oddly, our guide couldn’t have been close to being born when the area he was so enamored with was as steamy as he was eulogizing.

On a recent evening, watching this inventive piece of storytelling and theater directed by Moisés Kaufman take place in the windows of storefronts in the all-cleaned-up Meatpacking District, so many ghosts seemed present—even if the area’s present-day alcohol-powered wildness threatens to dislodge them completely.

The area feels pasteurized now. To know we were paying heed to its more thrilling past was as depressing as it was a resonant reclamation of past queerness (in the most embracing sense of that word). Shouty bros and clattering heels, reverberating around you as you watch the shows, remind the nostalgics in attendance that advancing time is rarely their friend.

The show (produced by Tectonic Theater Project and Madison Wells Live; through July 18) is around 100 minutes long, one world premiere short theatrical piece per sin, so expect 10 minutes-ish per show. The pick-and-mix element of the evening—what will we find next?—is one of its delights. This is the theater for those who love the salt and surprise of short stories. Not every mini-play hits as impressively as the standout shows of the evening, but as my companion said, the pieces aren’t that long—and so there’s none of that sitting-in-the-theater-sinking-sensation, knowing there’s another hour and a half to go of something that seems interminable.

Audience members wander around in groups to the storefronts; and the performers are doing an amazing nine shows a night. So, applaud hard, or rather do the sign language-approved “wave applause” audiences are encouraged to do, as the performers behind the glass cannot hear us. (And it actually feels very lovely and connecting to do so.)

At each storefront are rows of chairs to seat each group, and audience members wear headphones to hear the action of the actors. The visuals are striking too, and the setting lends itself to the sins in its past sense. In its present sense a lot of people out for a fun evening and not part of the theatrical experience look at the storefronts, puzzled and amazed. It is not only sins being interrogated, but very modern themes around sexuality, gender, racism, and relationships.

First, before audience members are variously dispersed, RuPaul’s Drag Race alumna Shuga Cain, the mistress of ceremonies, welcomes us to “purgatory,” outside the Whitney Museum. And then the route through the seven sins begins. Ours began with “Gluttony” and a play called Tell Me Everything You Know by Ngozi Anyanwu, featuring Shavanna Calder and Morgan McGhee as two women debating—with McGhee in the more vulnerable, questioning position—hungry for the knowledge that Calder possesses. The greenery here—in the first beautifully designed set by David Rockwell, and costumed by Dede Ayite—suggests the Garden of Eden, and McGhee feels as if she is about to tempted into knowing too much.

In this way, our evening felt like the beginning of an intelligible slalom, the beginning of a dark road. The tone changes to humor at the second storefront, where a modern living room features Jeff (Brandon J. Ellis) and Sandra (Shamika Cotton), rowing because he seems far too addicted to porn to have sex with her. The sin here, in Hard by Thomas Bradshaw, is sloth, and it plays as a slice of way-too-frenetic domestic comedy. Both of their frustrations are clear—clearly laying out how far apart an intimate couple can be. The “sloth” here is far more acute than physical laziness, it’s emotional.

The third mini-play, Wild Pride (inspired by “Pride”) by M.J. Kaufman, was a jolt of insight and bite, featuring a selfish trans influencer—Guru, played by Cody Sloan—so adept at spouting easy LGBTQ empowerment homilies to his many followers (personified by Bianca Norwood). And yet really this is a flimsy mask for someone who wants stardom and money way more than doing any actual good. As we consider both the monetization of social movements and the marketing of self-realization, Wild Pride skewers its targets pithily.

Kaufman’s All I Want Is Everything, inspired by “Greed,” features a brother and sister (played by Eric Ulloa and Tricia Alexandro) fighting at their father’s graveside about what he left and to whom, with a twist in the tail over sibling motives. It’s one of Rockwell’s grooviest sets: a great slab of upturned earth. Naples by Jeffrey LaHoste, starring Caitlin O’Connell and Andrew Keenan-Bolger, is the only show not performed in a shop window, but instead a storage container—a slice of viperish dangerous liaisons in the palace of Versailles.

Our penultimate show was the evening’s standout. Bess Wohl’s Lust, inspired by, yes, the sin of Lust, features Donna Carnow as a skimpily clad pole dancer. Through our headphones, we hear her thoughts as she performs for her typical audience of men (in this case, us). As she gyrates and does stunning gymnastics, we hear her thinking about the everydayness of life—getting things sorted at home, the groceries she needs to buy. And then, in the audience, she sees a man who subjected her to sexual violence. It is a beautifully layered, piercing piece of theater.

The final show, Ming Peiffer’s Longhorn (inspired by Wrath), took our evening full circle, featuring an Asian American dominatrix (Kahyum Kim) facing a despicable racist client (Brad Fleischer), an encounter that lays brutally bare the roots of racism, sexism, hate, and violence against marginalized communities.

The route through the sins had taken us from the first moment of innocence corrupted to the full debasement of humanity, in an evening that is like a curious treasure hunt. Some plays were far better than others, and it would have been good to see more of Shuga Cain on our travels, or have more sparky and involved guides—although they were clearly doing the tricky job of getting the groups from A to B to C to D, and seated on time.

And really, the joy of the evening is basic and extremely welcome. The hardworking performers are giving their all nine times an evening! You are out! Art is happening on the streets! You are on the streets. You are not at home. Seven Deadly Sins shows how art can and should be a collective exchange between artists and audience; and after a year of relative inactivity, of being spoon-fed art by Zoom if you had the energy for that, the show welcomes you back to, well, life.

A Thousand Ways: Part Two (An Encounter) at the Public Theater (to Aug. 15) is the second make-the-art-yourself piece by the group 600 Highwaymen, after the first part featured a phone call between two strangers, one of whom was you (this author has yet to do this).

Part Two—written by Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone; the project designer and dramaturg is Andrew Kircher—sees you, audience member, on stage seated behind plexiglass. You sit alone on the stark stage set up like a pandemic-aware prison meeting or job interview. Cards are on the table in front of you; the only link between you and—here they come!—the person sitting opposite you. There is no audience watching you. You are on a Public Theater stage where you have watched plays before; now you are creating the art. You sit up straight and both prepare to engage and feel a little absurd and self-conscious.

The questions and things you are asked to do—none of which I will reveal here, because you should experience the trajectory of nervy connection yourself—don’t exactly lead you and the total stranger on the opposite of the glass into intimacy. You are restricted to “yes” and “no” answers. You trace shapes on the glass together. You wonder what is hidden behind the one-word answers. You laugh nervously together. And then, after about an hour, this tantalizing experience is over.

Afterward, this participant felt frustrated (who really was that other person I know only as “Sarah”? Why could we not go beyond “yes” and “no”?) and then, outside on the street, intrigued by the possibilities of sharing between me and the rest of humanity coursing around me. And then, sighing over the great mystery of humanity and our connections and disconnections, a cyclist almost ran me over speeding through a red light—a familiar, bucket-of-cold-water encounter on the great stage that is New York City.