"Jim Neu, a veteran of experimental theater and a standby at La MaMa, has struck again with “Gang of Seven,” a brief but engaging torrent of intriguing ideas and dizzying wordplay."
- Andy Webster, New York Times
"Gang of Seven," a new comedy by Jim Neu, rips the lid off the dynamics, delusions, and dangers of the focus group movement sweeping across America. The play cunningly anticipates what will happen when ordinary gatherings for market research get infected with the human potential movement. Alone, this play's "Gang of Seven" are harmless normal citizens. Together, their volatile mix of personal chemistries creates an explosive brew of attitude, greed and collective identity. They are so empowered with team spirit that they begin to feel omnipotent. We see them pushing their mental envelopes, re-imagining their group as the grand information assembler, chosen to reorder reality for the country, or maybe the world.
The play is a fascinating satire of business doublespeak. The euphemistic language of marketing executives is adopted as ideology by the members of this media-saturated group, who swoon for such "future" ideas as "Facadism" and the "Mythosphere." Power is found in the reordering of information. Nostalgia, for them, is remembering their parents filling in product surveys with a ballpoint pen. They unify behind a business idea--The Reality Bowl--with a leader who boasts, "everything I’ve ever done has been right on the cutting edge of legitimate." Their ride into the euphoria of this value proposition is the journey of the play.
The cast is a unique mix of Neu veterans, relative newcomers and first-timers: Mary Shultz, Tony Nunziata, Chris Maresca, John Costelloe, Byron Thomas, Kristine Lee and, of course, Jim Neu. The production is directed by Keith McDermott (his ninth Jim Neu play) and has music by Harry Mann. Sets are by David Fritz and costumes are by Meg Zeder.
Neu's last production was "La Vie Noir" (La MaMa, 2007), in which a group of star-crossed, film-smitten barflies are trapped in a rooftop lounge with a tornado is heading their way. Bracing for the collision, they escape into a collective fantasy world of lonely streetlights, smart talk, killer shadows and wet footsteps. Time Out (Robert Simonson) declared, "For a film-noir parody with some teeth to it, forget Christopher Durang's limp Adrift in Macao and try downtown ironist Jim Neu's La Vie Noir instead. Whereas Durang only gets a knowing chuckle out of the genre's stylistic contrivances, Neu knows that the world of fedoras, shady ladies and rain-swept sidewalks has been creeping into our consciousness for decades."
Jim Neu's writing has mined the rich vein of irony, contradiction, and absurdity in American popular culture since the late '70s. His gift is to make us laugh at what it's like to have your mind run by those who explain life second-hand. He wrote a whole play, "Situation Room," on how market researchers might target a group of actors to investigate leisure behavior. He has found Hollywood's hard-sold fantasies to be even more provocative, so whether it’s spy films ("Undercurrent Incorporated"), westerns ("Target Audience: The Code of the Western"), detective movies ("Mondo Beyondo"), or Hollywood history ("Kiss Shot"), his comedies have shown how generations of monetized entertainment have altered our attitudes, behavior and reality.
He does it with a complex and distinctive style of language. Neu has been called "the Oscar Wilde of the Postverbal Generation." He is a master of deadpan circumlocution and the elliptical take on language. It makes for brilliant dialogue and a minimalist comedy style that is all Neu's own.
Jim Neu began working in theater as an actor in Robert Wilson's company in the early 1970's, performing in New York, Europe, Brazil and Iran. When Wilson began employing text in his work, Neu began writing for him. He contributed to the scripts of Wilson's "Ka Mountain," The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin" and "A Letter for Queen Victoria." Neu began writing his own plays with the Napa Valley Theater Company in California in the late '70s. Since 1992, all his new works have been presented by La MaMa, with the exception of "Aerobia," a collaboration with Douglas Dunn at PS122. In all, Neu has written 27 plays, which have been presented by leading experimental theaters in New York, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Philadelphia and London. They include "Him or Me" (1979), "Basic Behavior" (1982), "Mutual Narcissism" (1984), "Duet for Spies" (1987), "An Evening with Jesse James" (1988), "Live Witness" (1992), "Dark Pocket" (1994), "The Floatones" (1995), "Mondo Beyondo" (1997), Undercurrent Incorporated" (1999) and "Target Audience: The Code of the Western" (2003). In 1993, "Live Witness" was published by Theater Communications Group in their "Plays in Process" series. In recent years some of his earlier work has been revived by the Chain Lightning and Miranda theater companies in New York.
In addition to his own work, Neu has collaborated with theater companies Otrabanda, the Talking Band and Bloolips and written text for dance works by David Woodberry, Yoshiko Chuma, Charles Moulton, Cathy Weis and Douglas Dunn. He also wrote the screenplays for Andrew Horn's films "Doomed Love" and "The Big Blue," which both premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. Neu is recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts. Fellowship for New Genres, New York Foundation for the Arts Playwriting Fellowship, a New Works grant by the New York State Council on the Arts and 2000 ArtsLink Collaborative Projects Award.
Reviewing Neu's "Target Audience: The Code of the Western" (2003-4), Robert Simonson wrote in Time Out, "Playwright-actor Jim Neu…may be the most unfairly uncelebrated of downtown auteurs. Neu is as adept at twisting language and meaning as Mac Wellman, has been as artistically consistent as Richard Foreman and was cleaving his texts to disorienting songs long before Richard Maxwell was old enough to drink."
Jim Neu's creative history is documented on www.JimNeu.com. The site contains insightful introductions by Ulla Dydo and Keith McDermott, overviews (with photos) of all his plays from 1985 to the present, as well as a chronology of his artistic career beginning with his early days in Robert Wilson's company (1970-75).
No One Talks Media-Speak Like Product Pusher
by Andy Webster, New York Times
Jim Neu, a veteran of experimental theater and a standby at La MaMa, has struck again with “Gang of Seven,” a brief but engaging torrent of intriguing ideas and dizzying wordplay. Largely a conversation among seven archetypes seated onstage, the play raises a heady froth of provocation within its hourlong running time.
The assembled are members of a focus group — Raymond, an aging wag in a bow tie (Byron Thomas); the refined Dawn (Mary Shultz), who fears the group is losing its “veil of anonymity”; the corporate curmudgeon Steve (Mr. Neu); the free-spirited Sh’rell (Chris Maresca); the entrepreneurial hustler Michael (John Costelloe); the naïve teenager Sandy (Kristine Lee); and Frank, a working-class stiff (Tony Nunziata). They congratulate themselves on their authority to confer status on things never made entirely clear: products, say, or political candidates. Together, they delight in the fabrication of reality, the manufacture of perception, and employ a baffling marketing-speak (“veneer management,” “facade-ism” and “rumorizing”).
Their smug solidarity is tested by flare-ups of independence and spontaneity, embodied at one point by a mild flirtation between Ms. Maresca and Mr. Costelloe, but things eventually right themselves, if these electronic-media-addled consumers can ever be well adjusted.
“Uncommitted is the new black, and I’ve learned to be proud,” Ms. Lee says. Utterly compliant, they have been hidden from their own feelings: “I can barely remember the last time I felt so close to myself!” Mr. Nunziata says tearfully. Ultimately, the play turns to theatrical convention but invests it with new meaning.
“Gang of Seven” rewards repeat viewing — once is not enough to savor the abundant verbal pirouettes. The actors are appealing, well served by Mr. Neu’s frequent director, Keith McDermott, and conveying a palpable rapport. Some are familiar hands on Neu productions, and others are new, but discerning the veterans from the rookies isn’t easy. (Ms. Shultz and Mr. Neu are especially good.) By the end you may not have retained all of the play’s notions, but your brain will be abuzz with them.