By Sarah Downs
Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen someone put a lampshade on his head. It’s a party trick that seems to exist only in fiction. Well, except that I actually witnessed it at a college party, and it was weird, to say the least. Yet, in James & Jamesy in the Dark, two men with lamps on their heads create the opposite effect. OK, it is still odd, but in a good way.
Rendering the characters anonymous, and acting as the only source of light onstage for most of the show, James & Jamesy’s headlamps are at once part of and outside the actors. They are an extension of them, not a prop. James and Jamesy resemble human tubas or snorkelers. Yet with a bend the head they could be the lamp next to your armchair.
In this clever two-man show, we are brought into an abstract space of light and sound, where two Jameses — James (Aaron Malkin) and his mirror reflection Jamesy (Alastair Knowles) explore the paradox of identity. It is internal, yet exists at the point where parallel lives converge, and the concept of something outside oneself is revealed. James and Jamesy are like two Petit Princes on their dark planet, unaware of their environment, unaware of each other and unaware of how lonely they are until they meet. That moment turns on the lights, both literally and figuratively.
Malkin and Knowles play out this exercise in discovery through mime, dialogue and improvisation. The performance stands on its firmest ground during the non-verbal, more physical clowning scenes and the those that take place entirely in the dark. There is something oddly moving about listening to dialogue in pitch blackness. You lose your compass very quickly, compelled to focus intently, as you are now dealing not just with ‘us and them’ but with ‘here and there.’
Malkin as James remains more abstract while Knowles as Jamesy displays a more youthful character. Malkin is upright; Knowles loose limbed and more outwardly emotional, the kid brother to the more intellectual older sibling. They play off each other easily, generous and unhurried in their gesture and working to stay in the moment. As the two Jameses discover each-other, their eyes inevitably turn outward to the audience. The interactive nature of what follows walks the fine line between innocence and comedy. The give-and-take to the audience is fun, but at times feels a bit clunky.
Improvisation across the footlights can be hazardous. If they step too far it is harder to retreat back behind the fourth wall. Malkin and Knowles are mostly successful in this endeavor, leaving us with a final question: Now James and Jamesy know us and we know them — do we still exist for them when they have gone back to their existential island?
Thought provoking and funny, James & Jamesy in the Dark challenges us not just to contemplate but to respond. Their questions feel organic, as if they bubbled up from within us. The lamps in our heads switch on. Thus, the show is a creation of discovery and the discovery of creation, and well worth a look.
James & Jamesy in the Dark, written and performed by Aaron Malkin and Alastair Knowles, and directed by David MacMurray Smith. At the SoHo Playhouse through October 14th. Opening night September 16th. Schedule: Wednesday – Sunday at 7pm; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 pm. Running time is 75 Minutes with no intermission. Presented by the SoHo Playhouse (15 Vandam St.) Tickets are $39 and can be purchased at SoHoPlayhouse.com or calling (212) 691-1555.