by Nita Congress · February 23, 2016
A Paul Auster story has a tone and a logic like no other. In an Auster world, people choose without choosing, commit wholeheartedly and foolhardily, progress in a circle. Events don’t unfold so much as they enswirl and entangle. White heat sputters in a cold black night.
If Auster’s writing were a painting, it would be Nighthawks. If music, jazz. If a place, Dante’s fifth circle.
Here is a passage from the beginning of City of Glass, both the Auster novel and the intriguing Edward Einhorn adaptation now on view at the New Ohio Theatre:
New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighborhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well. Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace…
That’s on page 4. On page 7, Auster smoothly wrenches the world and narrative convention inside out. I first read City of Glass over twenty years ago, and its twisting, churning spirals, its mirrors within mirrors that reflect nothing and reflect on everything, have haunted me since.
It is tough work to adapt a masterpiece made in one medium to suit the conventions and constraints of another. Something is inevitably lost, but, when successful, something else is gained. Translation soars to transmogrification, and the piece is brought to a new audience, in a new way, with new insights.
That is what Einhorn is here attempting, and he has employed a number of theatrical devices to approximate those used in the novel. To convey the elliptical solipsism of the narrative stance, he has conceived of City of Glass as essentially a one-man echo chamber. One actor, the fluid and versatile Robert Honeywell, speaks all the play’s narrative and inhabits all of its characters. Mateo Moreno and Dina Rose Rivera — he of the rubber face and she of the lissome limbs — are, respectively, the Silent Man and Silent Woman, who shadow and partner with Honeywell as he plays the narrator playing the author playing the detective playing everyone else. By and large, this works: as in the novel, we are in a silent world filled with shadowy, mysterious people, with only a cool narrative voice thrumming in our ears.
Live music is heard throughout, played by composer/musician Freddi Price at far stage right. The music is spot on: evocative without being intrusive, punctuating rather than driving the action.
The set is fittingly stark, simple, and noir-ish: a stack of books (and these were carefully selected: I caught Vonnegut, Jung, and a book on logic, as well as the Don Quixote discussed in the play), an armchair, a table with a phone at one end of the stage; a pay phone mounted on the wall at the other. In between is emptiness, representing the blocks of New York that the characters inhabit. Uncluttered, and just enough scenery to be functional and not to distract, keeping us grounded in the world of the story — to the extent grounding is possible in this world. The set is used starkly, transcendentally, making use of theatrical, rather than literary, tools.
Einhorn has worked hard to realize a live theater version of City of Glass, and he has largely succeeded. He has trimmed the text from some 130 pages to about 95 minutes, sacrificing some exegeses, but not the essence. Many of the book’s serenely disquieting, yet profound, sentences are preserved in the adaptation — one I particularly like: “In his dream, which he later forgot…”
The result is an immersion in Auster-land. I came away jangled and unsettled, shaken and moved, even as I had been on first encounter.