Chasing History through the Streets of New York

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Some of the fun of seeing plays about the past that are part of the annual summer Fringe Festival in New York is that you can literally chase history over the sidewalks of the city. Fringe fans use the festival program and city maps to see whichof the 197 plays they can see almost back to back. Sometimes, if the play and subway times match, you can see three plays in one day.

I picked two history dramas in the Cooper Square area of the city, five blocks apart, and caught one hour long play at noon and a ninety minute play at 2. The trick? Move fast!

LaMaMa Theater
74A E. Fourth Street
New York, N.Y.

You remember the child geniuses.  They were the ten- and eleven-year-old kids with extraordinary mental powers that the media loved.  They read the novels of Hemingway at four, were piano prodigies at eight, invented things at twelve, and went to college at fifteen.  You read about them in newspapers and magazines and saw them on television.  Everybody was startled by their mental powers and fearful that they could never lead a normal life.

Pablo Picasso painted his first portrait at eight. Jeremy Bentham was a freshman at Oxford at twelve. Ludwig van Beethoven was a famous composer at fifteen. Blaise Pascal wrote his first math theorem in 1633, at eleven, and Bobby Fischer won his first U.S. chess championship at fourteen.

We saw them and forgot about them. Whatever happened to all those geniuses, anyway?

Chagrin, by Michael Ross Albert, a Fringe Festival play that opened last weekend, is the story of four of them and how their skyrocketing IQs did not do much for them later in life.

A generation ago, the four kids, all from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, were the stars of a television show about gifted kids.  They became nationally famous and a quartet of history’s darlings. Now, some fifteen years later, they are back in town for a re-union television show and trading stories. They are not pretty.

The four all have problems. They arrive to learn that their leader, boy genius Seymour (Heath Carr) has been hospitalized.  They go to see him and he complains that he has written them letters over the years that they did not answer.  Francis (played by Suzy Kimball) has become a little strange as she aged, Evie (Melissa Rosenberger) has had an on again/off again relationship with another genius, Asher (Marco Agnolucci) and Asher himself seems pretty lonely.

They trade insults, crush hopes and dreams, and learn a secret at the end of the play that startles all.

Chagrin is a good start towards a solid play, but it is rather incomplete.  As an example, the re-union television show, the point of the drama, is forgotten.  The play just ends without it.  There is little in the play about the lives of the geniuses when they were apart.  What happens to people that smart?

There is nothing in the play to indicate how the young peoples’ parents must have prodded and pushed them, how the media made stars of them or how other kids’ hatred or loved them.  We are given the four in a bit of a vacuum.

You cry out for more.

Albert has written a decent play and Adam Levi held it together as the director, but it seems more of an outline, or first draft, than the finished product.

PRODUCTION: Produced by Outside Inside, in partnership with Hubo Productions. Costumes: Lara De Bruijn, Sets and lighting: Brandon Stock. Directed by Adam Levi.

When Chagrin concluded, we ran down the street to catch a one man show about one of history’s most publicized mass murderers, Jeffrey Dahmer.

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Jeffrey Dahmer Live
Bowery Poetry Club
308 Bowery Street
New York, N.Y.

The stage at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York is pitch black, except for a small video screen.  Suddenly, very quietly, a tall, stocky man dressed in a bright orange prison jumpsuit walks out, introduces himself as serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and begins to sing a grisly song titled ‘I Am Sick.’

Oh, he is.

Everybody remembers Dahmer, the deranged Wisconsin serial killer who slew seventeen people from 1978–1991, dismembered their bodies and ate some for lunch and dinner (‘they tasted like filet mignon’ he says in the play).  Dahmer became one of the most famous serial killer of all time and had his life and crimes chronicled in movies, books, news articles, and television documentaries.

In Jeffrey Dahmer Live, a Fringe Festival one-man-show that opened last weekend, playwright Avner Kam, who also plays Dahmer, tries to understand what motivated the Milwaukee madman, an alcoholic most of his life, in his gruesome and murderous career.

Kam, a large, frightening man with short gray hair, tells you a lot about Dahmer’s life and abnormal desires, but can never quite explain why he murdered so many people.  He talks about Dahmer’s different homes, his life with his grandmother, his jobs, his time in the U.S. Army (honorable discharge, by the way), his relatives and his friends.  He relates, astoundingly, how the police continually let him slip through their fingers as he continued his string of macabre murders.  Like all serial killers, Dahmer just can’t explain why he did it—again and again and again.

Kam uses some really silly songs to try to do this and they all fail, and fail badly.  The videos are a bit grainy.  Sometimes his descriptive stories are flat and sometimes they don’t illustrate the story at all.  He does not set Dahmer in his historical context, living in the age of other historic serial killers, such as Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Juan Corona.

And yet there is something very personal and absolutely haunting, riveting, about Kam as Dahmer.  As he goes on and on for ninety minutes, you grow more and more comfortable with him in front of you, and yet at the same time terrified.  He achieves that traditional, and always surprising, quietness of the killer.  Murderers in real life are not the ugly, two-headed hyenas depicted in film and on television.  They are ordinary people with twisted minds and overly violent tempers.  This why it has always been difficult for historians, as well as the police, to come to grips with them.

Kam captures that, and he does it slowly, year by year and body by body.  There is a hollowness to his tale because Dahmer, like most serial killers, is a psychotic who does not feel remorse for what he does.  Kam tells the story in gripping detail and adds some wonderful bits of humor, such as his efforts to find a book on cannibalism in the ‘self-help’ section of the bookstore.

There is chilling detail, too, such as Kam’s lengthy, cold, incredibly detailed description of his first murder, told as if he was looking through a window at someone else committing the crime.  And there is the irony.  No matter where he went, no one ever quite connected him with the disappearances of people.  In the end, the police arrested him by accident.

You never feel sorry for Dahmer, but you do feel frustrated that for hundreds of years law enforcement, science, and medicine have been unable to understand and detect serial killers before they strike.  And, of course, as the drama unwinds, you feel badly for the victims and their families.

The audience cheered lustily for Kam at the performance I attended.  The play gets to you within ten minutes or so and you can’t pull yourself away from it.  This is because the story itself is intriguing (Americans are fascinated by murderers) and Kam manages to stitch together Dahmer’s personality, even if he does not look like him.  A big plus are news clips of Dahmer during investigations and trials.  At the end of the show, there is a clip of a woman whose brother has been murdered by Dahmer.  She confronts him in the courtroom and howls at him, losing all self-control.  It is jarring.

You may not totally understand Jeffrey Dahmer after sitting through this one show, but you will gain a new perspective about him.

And actor Kam will scare you to death.

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PRODUCTION: Music: Peter Fish, Lighting and Videos: Brad Peterson. Directed by Jonathan Warman.

Oh, actor’s Kam’s last one-man play?  Cowboy star Roy Rogers.  How’s that for an historical pair?

Bruce Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

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