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The Seven Year Disappear

Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 26, 2024

Cynthia Nixon and Taylor Trensch
Photo by Monique Carboni
With its use of deliberately over-amplified and disembodied voices, video close-ups, and shiny, modernist design, The New Group's production of the The Seven Year Disappear would seem to be better suited for a museum art installation than an Off-Broadway theater. Additionally, Jordan Seavey's play, which is currently running at New York's Signature Center, jumps back and forth in time, merges rudiments of conceptual performance art, and includes exaggerated and arch characters based on figures from the contemporary art world. Think Whitney Biennial meets the Wooster Group. Yet, at the center of this strangely absorbing and very smart play is a deeply moving and paradoxically conventional story of a mother and son.

As the audience enters the theater, a man and woman are seated face-to-face. The sleek set and stark lighting (marvelously designed by, respectively, Derek McLane and Jeff Croiter) seem to be a television studio set with the pair facing off in preparation for a one-on-one interview. There is even a scrolling chyron above the set, which provides a crawling chronology of events from 2009 to 2016.

The play confounds expectations in its first moments as it begins with the woman, Miriam (Cynthia Nixon), executing a hilarious impression of the renowned performance artist Marina Abramović. Her son, Naphtali (Taylor Trensch), has just broken the news that the Whitney Museum has commissioned Abramović to present her newest work. Miriam, who is also a performance artist, is furious, ranting, "The Whitney is mine!" As his mother's manager, though, Naphtali teasingly tells her that a major announcement is forthcoming: The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) will feature Miriam's work the following November.

Jump ahead seven years: We find out that Miriam had disappeared the night of the MoMA opening, and the art world has been abuzz with speculation that it is merely a stunt and an elaborate durational performance piece. During the intervening years, Naphtali struggles with alcohol and drug addiction and moves from one unsuccessful tryst to another (including an extended affair with Wolfgang, his mother's ex-manager and lover). When Miriam returns, she coldly explains that she will reveal the details of her vanishing in her upcoming exhibition at MoMA. For Naphtali, her behavior irrefutably proves that her art has always come first, and it is by and far more important than her maternal role.

Thematically, the mother-son relationship is reminiscent of Konstantin and Arkadina's in Chekhov's The Seagull. In that play, the self-absorbed actress in insensitive to her troubled son's desire to have her love and approval. In The Seven Year Disappear, Naphtali, like Konstantin, lives in the shadow of his mother's career, and it nearly destroys him.

Scott Elliott directs, and he expertly mines the humanity from the performances even as they are deliberately at odds with the avant-gardist integration of sound (effectively designed by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen), video (by John Narun), and with the actors wearing nondistinctive, black industrial costumes (by Qween Jean). Luckily, the director is working with a pair of actors who are nothing short of sensational.

As Naphtali, Trensch perfectly captures the character's anger and pain, and when he finally explodes in rage, we can sense the years of accumulated neglect and desire to receive his mother's attention. Even more sadly, the nuanced portrayal shows the boyishness of the character, who mitigates his pain with sex and drugs.

Nixon is both frightening and uproarious in her depiction of a mother from hell who carefully crafts her public persona and treats life as an unending durational performance. In Miriam's unguarded moments, however, she exposes the character's motherly vulnerabilities and fears that she will lose her artistic inspiration. Notably, Nixon plays a host of other characters, including a high school manicurist, several of Naphtali's gay lovers, and Wolfgang. The varied and expertly executed depictions by an actor playing a performance artist adds another playful layer to the production, and Nixon is thrilling to watch.

For audience members accustomed to more orthodox theatre productions, The Seven Year Disappear requires some patience (and there were a few walkouts in the performance I attended). Nevertheless, by the end, the fragmented scenes and hyper-theatrical elements cohere to illicit a poignant and searing portrait of artists and family members.

The Seven Year Disappear
Through March 31, 2024
The New Group
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule: