by Julia Lee Barclay-Morton · October 13, 2014
The Assembly's That Poor Dream at The New Ohio is a gorgeous production, beautifully designed by Nick Benacerraf with video designed by Ray Sun that works as a distinct but not overwhelming element (and I say this as someone who usually loathes video in theater). The director Jess Chayes has staged this complex show very well and the acting on the whole is quite strong. A standout in excellent company is Emily Louise Perkins as the unflappable, all business and not to be trifled with lawyer, Jaggers.
The Assembly has attempted to look at the issue of class in America (inspired according to their program notes by the Occupy Wall Street movement), by adapting Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, to modern day New York City. The ease with which this parable from the Victorian era translates to our age is proof of how dire the situation is and how well The Assembly has understood Dickens' novel in relation to America's ever-less-permeable class system.
A related issue that neither Dickens (because he was English) nor this show deals with head on - though it is alluded to obliquely by casting decisions - is how race factors into the class system in the U.S. While class privilege is addressed directly, white privilege is more inferred by casting an African American as the criminal turned wealthy patron (and the jilted bride who may be a patron).
On the other hand, the scenes showing Pip transforming from needy white kid into a Columbia student with infinite funds shows a good grasp of the difficulties of fitting into another class than one was born and raised into even in the mythically classless America. That Poor Dream is of course the American one, which this play makes clear, is indeed in sad shape.
I had a real problem with one section near the end when members of the ensemble told us their own somewhat class-related personal stories, each ending with something like a moral or personal motto. This abrupt move into the confessional from a highly stylized parable was jarring and did not add anything to this show. While some of the stories were moving, they either need to be told throughout the whole piece - as part of its organic structure - or perhaps used as the basis of a different show wherein the issues of class (and race and gender implied by the personal stories) are examined from this perspective.
Overall, however this is a sophisticated and brave show from a young, talented and ambitious company, both of which are worth watching. It is refreshing to see a theater company taking on such a hefty, political subject, and I look forward to seeing this show and The Assembly develop.