Bats and Balls

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The back room at Telephone Bar and Grill, on lower Second Avenue, is long and very narrow. A play of mine was read there once, partly due to affordability, partly because the play needed a boatload of actors and the room’s claustrophobic vibe—like the walls are closing in—inspired me. The downstairs space at the Flea Theater has a similar vibe. Shallow as a Valley girl, broad as burlesque, the best plays there are those that confront you directly, ignoring any pretense of fourth walls or the distance spittle can fly. Artistic director Jim Simpson’s production of Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience has just that kind of swagger.

Handke, who is Austrian and an enfant terrible among post-World War II literary lions, wrote the play in 1966. On paper, the piece seems inescapably ’60s: There are no characters, no action and zero production values beyond a simple black curtain pulled aside to start the play. Virtually the entire text consists of statements asserting everything the play is not. Imagine each of these sentences spoken to you by a different actor:

“There are no intervals here. The intervals between words lack significance. Here the unspoken word lacks significance.
There are no unspoken words here. Our silences say nothing. There is no deafening silence. There is no silent silence. There is no deathly quiet. Speech is not used to create silence here. This play includes no direction telling us to be silent.”
The actors are the Bats, the Flea’s young, fearless 21-actor resident company, which wears only black and has no two actors in like cuts of clothing. Initially they sit on a hard bench along the upstage wall, staring at the three rows of audience members. Or they rise for their line, taking a sotto voce approach or perhaps something that sounds harsher or crueler. Soon they’re coming right up to you—peering, swinging their legs over the wooden partitions separating us from them. They’re in your face, your mind, your lap.

Handke’s theme is negation—the revenge of players upon those who pay to watch the players play. True, table-turning on the audience is right out of Pirandello, but it’s also the intimacy of the room’s architecture that delivers electrifying moments. When one of the Bats tells you that you feel something—that somehow you’re experiencing what actors experience on stage—you do. You laugh nervously, recognizing your inability to return the stare of the actor six inches from where you’re sitting. The security of being an observer vanishes as the text, distributed evenly to the cast, comes at you like arrows, each line in another tone. Simpson balances his actors like a maestro, having them leaven angry lines with irony, fiery lines with compassion.

The play’s one stage direction comes at the end. The curtain “does not remain closed, but parts again immediately, regardless of the behavior of the public. The speakers stand and look at the public without looking at anyone in particular.” This, too, was masterful: No one knew what to do. Finally, a woman in the audience rose and drew the curtain. Defiantly, a Bat reopened it—then there was nervous laughter all around. She and her friend left. Then I rose, kibitzing with the actors as I put on my coat, quizzing them on Antonin Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty.” Now the actors laughed nervously. They passed the quiz.

Through Feb. 23. The Flea Theater, 41 White St. (betw. Church St. & Broadway), 212-226-2407; $10.

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