Neena Beber beats a quivering Cupid to the quick before he can even take a bow; her brilliant and darkly comic "Jump/Cut" cuts to the chase – the chase being that of real romance that the reel world can never exactly corner.
Receiving its New York premiere now through Feb. 26 at the Women's Project's Julia Miles Theater, at 424 W. 55th St., "Jump/Cut" projects a love triangle through the funnel-cloud focus of a movie-maker whose take on the topic is a reshoot of his own fears and tears.
Director Paul, his sweetie Karen and his longtime bud, Dave, are three semi-survivors struggling with the way life has scripted their passive-aggressive reflexes. And it's all accompanied to the surround sound of Steely Dan.
Forget "Mama Mia" and forget ABBA; or, for that matter, Billy Joel and his "Movin' On."
"Jump/Cut" puts the moves on a Steely Dan dynamic.
"Their time has come," quips Beber of the group's circuitous route to off-Broadway through her play and its allusions to their lyrics.
With a love of the rock band a jumping-off point, "Jump/ Cut" reels in reality-show fans interested in a work that, as the Women's Project describes it, "puts obsessions, betrayals and Steely Dan into the line of focus."
Playwright Beber doesn't so much break through the fourth wall in the work as plaster it with an angle all its own. "The camera is the fourth character," says Beber of a sense of a staged structure that "is something new for the millennium."
If it all creates, as she says, "a strange dynamic," it comes from a writer interested in dynamiting preconceived theatrical conceits.
With a bio big on major players – Beber's works have been produced at the Public, among other notable theaters; she has won numerous commissions and awards – the artist arrives at the Women's Project not so much as a woman in progress as one with considerable accomplishments trailing her.
And while "Jump/Cut" and its cinematic stylings are receiving their New York premiere, acclaim is nothing new for the writer. It was originally produced by the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company and Theater J of Washington, D.C.
J as in … Jewish? A natural first home for the play: Indeed, the character Paul is Jewish, and his sense of identity informs some of the play "in a way that might be a bit subtle."
But Judaism, says Beber, "is what he brings to the table – his perspective as an outsider. And that became important to me."
Important enough that the Jewish writer shifted chairs at the table itself, serving up a different place setting for the play during its development. Bringing Paul's Jewishness out more "made the play whole and specific as did his journey [reflecting] his guilt as a Jew."
A guilt-edged script hits home and hearth for Beber. "I'm really familiar with the emotion of guilt," she says with a laugh, "as well as the recrimination that drives the play."
Driving Miss Guided? In a way, Paul is a chauffeur without a sense of direction, forever aware of the breaks that can put the brakes on his ambition.
"I brake for animosity"?
This isn't a play of aphorisms or bumper stickers, but one fueled by a heartfelt understanding of human nature.
A New Generation
In a way, it's also predicated on the unpredictability of a Prozac Nation, the anti-Pepsi generation whose members are shadowed by the debilitating despair of depression. "This is not a disease-of-the-week play," Beber rightfully contends, dismissing any parallels to the way some TV movies have dealt with mental illness in the past with cures wrapped up in 90 minutes.
Beber believes that tackling the topic of depression provides important familiar turf for those just wanting to live a life without feeling the ground open up beneath them.
"So many people are faced with inner demons," she says.
What Beber faces now may be her greatest success, even with all the Emmy Award nods for previous TV work. A breakthrough debut for an iconoclastic creative talent intent on breaking with the past?
No break could be more complete than the one she achieved with a karate chop to her college curriculum. She arrived in theaterland after graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University, lauded for her studies in … Latin American literature?
Okay, maybe it's not the camino real that usually is a stepping stone to theater. But Beber's studies did affect the imagery she was able to conjure up for her considerable commitment to the stage: "I loved its sense of magic realism," she says of the lush literature that engaged her at Harvard, "and that lends itself to the stage."
It also helps that Beber can borrow from family traditions when it comes to the arts, citing a grandmother as a painter and a great uncle "who was a character actor in silent films."
Then, in a way, isn't the play at the Women's Project her shout-out to everything that came before it – a mind-meld of métiers in which she specializes, magic realism and reel truths, and an acknowledgment of artistic ancestry that jump/cuts across the ages?
"It could well be," she muses of the play "that feels like a merging of the worlds I'm interested in."