NEW YORK— Now at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, Ayn Rand’s 1937 novel “Anthem,” a tale about the dangers of conformity and what happens when people stop thinking for themselves, gets theatrical treatment with a stage adaptation of the same name by Jeff Britting.
In the far distant future, the collective unity is all. Individuals by themselves are nothing. They are told how to act, what type of work to do, and when to breed.
Even those in power are treated the same as those they dictate to. Never questioning, only doing what they themselves have been instructed since childhood, these people have endured this pattern for centuries.
Equality 7-2521 (Matthew Lieff Christian) is a man taller and smarter than the average person. Frowned upon by the ruling council because of this difference, he is designated to be a street sweeper upon his coming of age. It’s not long after this when, during his street sweeping duties, he stumbles upon an underground tunnel, one constructed long ago.
Here, in immense solitude, he begins to write down his thoughts. Writing is a crime in itself as one is not permitted to think one’s own private thoughts or write words that are not meant for everyone to see. This sets the stage for a showdown with those who do not tolerate even the smallest deviation from the status quo.
There is great dramatic potential here, as well as a chance to explore the importance, power, and potential dangers that come with individuality. Sadly, much of what is presented has a flat and lifeless feel to it, neither able to bring forth the grim imagery of the novel nor to make the characters seem completely alive.
This is especially true with Christian’s portrayal of Equality 7-2521. His character feels rather one-note and almost by rote, and his voice seldom varies in tone or inflection.
It doesn’t help that much of the story is presented statically, with Equality 7-2521 relating the tale and showing how first one thing happens, then the next. Thus, the audience never has the chance to really get to know the character.
What makes this so tragic is that there are moments when the both the play and the actors are able to connect with the material and present something quite touching—when Equality 7-2521 meets Liberty 5-3000 (Sofia Lauwers), for example, and the two discover the joys and pangs of first love, an emotion people in their existence are forbidden to experience.
Another striking moment occurs when an aged member of this society (Tina Johnson) tries to pierce the veil of memory and understand what happened in that time long forgotten. She shows her frustration at being unable to do so, even as her companion (Lelund Durond) urges her to forget these questions.
There’s also the time Equality 7-2521 constructs a fascinating invention in his hiding place and is certain that his creation will bring a great change to the world. He sounds at points almost like a mad idealist.
Yet soon after each of these moments, the monotone quality of the story reasserts itself and slams the window on what both Britting and director Ann Ciccolella are trying to create. Instead it leaves only intriguing glimpses of what might have been.
Lauwers has the same problem with her character as Christian has with his. Her performance is, like Christian’s, appealing at points, but at other times too dry to really connect with the audience or the possibilities of the text. The difference, though, is that Lauwers is more on the periphery of things, at least until the latter part of the story.
Johnson and Durond do better with their characterizations. They, along with Alex Teicheira and Sarah Walker Thornton, play multiple roles in the story—all of which help to paint an interesting picture of the society Rand envisioned.
Chiefly affecting is the scene where Equality 7-2521 tries to bring his discovery before the world council of scholars only to be branded a heretic. This sequence, however, also shows the weakness of the entire production. Some of the scholars’ remarks, meant to show just how oppressive and limited their society is, provokes laughter from the audience instead.
The scenic design by Kevin Judge is quite good. It is basically a bare stage with a few props, helped immensely by various projection designs by Jason H. Thompson and strong sound design work by Anthony Mattana.
Costumes by Theresa Squire are nicely bland, in keeping with the overall feeling of the story. Lighting by Jason Amato is quietly subdued, at least until the final scenes. At that point, it powerfully brings forth the tonal changes the story calls for.
“Anthem” is a powerful story in whatever form presented. However, while a book leaves it to the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks, what’s offered on stage must be strongly envisioned from start to finish for it to really come together as something that can stand on its own, instead of being a weak imitation of the original.
Jerome Robbins Theater
Baryshnikov Arts Center
450 West 37th Street
Tickets: 212-352-3101 or visit www.AnthemThePlay.com
Running Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Closes: Dec. 1
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.