BOTTOM LINE: An episodic drama to save our libraries!
Glass Beads Theatre Ensemble’s production of Browsing highlights the failing American library system’s financial crisis. In doing so, it offers us a few moments of heartbreaking drama wrapped in some problematic style changes and a little pseudo-intellectual pretension.
The play is essentially a series of enacted “excerpts” from source materials (ranging from Theodore Roosevelt to Henri Bergson) laced together with scenes of library patrons in moments of discovery or transformation (for better and worse). Such a structure makes a clear defense for the potential of public libraries. Its execution, though, is too unabashedly earnest and accidentally self-righteous to win converts.
One problem perhaps lies in the fact that the director (Mari Gorman) and lead actress (Danna Call) are also the playwrights (along with Craig Popisil). The tone is too sincere to be consciously theatrical but the technique too theatrical to be documentary-style realism. A mismatch of styles. The ensemble seem to suffer through overlong scenes and unnecessary accent changes just to show us how much they suffer in real life over their subject. I kept wanting Call to just stand center stage and cry and tell us how [maybe] her mother was a librarian. A few moments do successfully capture such raw intensity of feeling. My favorite is when Ms. Rainwater (Call) must fire her dedicated assistant Angie (Juliet Coffey) simply because the library cannot afford to pay her anymore. The exchange is so awkward, so painful, and it encapsulates in a few choked words everything the play tries to say in ninety minutes.
The production also struggles somewhat with (seemingly unintentional) intellectual pretension and thus does nothing to combat the socio-political stereotyping that dissolves debates over libraries into fights between an imagined “intellectual elite” and “mainstream America.” The premise, after-all, is glorified name-dropping. We as an audience feel good when we know a reference or have read an excerpt. We feel confused or stupid if we don’t or haven’t. As a result, some of the characters come across as condescending.
Still, Browsing does a good job of capturing our current economic climate in America. The characters are varied and the material relevant. We see that most people like the library, but no one is either willing or able to support it. When asked for a donation, one character says “everywhere I turn around, I gotta pay more. Now, I gotta pay for something that’s supposed to be free?” Ms. Rainwater concludes: it comes down to “the library or a new exit ramp off highway 10 to Wal-Mart.”
(Browsing played at Teatro SEA 107 Suffolk Street through August 27, 2011. Tickets were $15. For more information about FringeNYC visit FringeNYC.org. For more show info visit glassbeadstheatre.org.)