The most effective moments of Dutch playwright Alex van Warmerdam's The Northern Quarter, now making its New York premiere at the Sanford Meisner Theater, are the two stage images that bookend the evening. Minutes after lights' rise, the 41-year-old protagonist, Faas, uses a flashlight to follow the winding tendril of a long, red knit scarf—like a man slowly collecting the thread sewn for him by the Fates—until he comes face to face with his personal Klotho, the goddess of spinning: his disturbingly cheerful mother, still blithely crocheting. All roads, we're seemingly told, lead to Mom. The rest of the evening doesn't so much advance from this image as circle its significance, like a dog sniffing around its master. Faas (the excellent Dave Geuriera), under the aegis of both his mother (Heather Hollingsworth) and his rigidly decorous father (Vincent van der Valk), has been held the long years of his life under what amounts to house arrest. He is not allowed outside; he is barred from reading books (when his father relents and gives his son a dictionary, Faas discovers that all but a few paternally approved words have been scratched out); he is even denied a shrimp sandwich on the grounds that wanting one means he is not entirely content at the present moment. Trouble starts when Faas begins to assert to his parents the truth of that accusation.
The uneven charm of van Warmerdam's script, as translated from the original Dutch by director Erwin Maas, is in its particular type of absurdity. It's not a pure blend. Where the absurd argues that the world and those who people it are threatening for being entirely inscrutable, van Warmerdam seems to suggest that the true threat to our well-being is not attempting to go out and crack the code.
It's no surprise, then, that once he lets Faas into the world—where he finds his beloved books and experiments with painting, among other things—the mood noticeably lightens. A warm breath of common sense begins to creep into the dialogue (a duel of philosophy with three quirky construction workers is the high point of this shift in tone), as opposed to simple logic, which, in keeping with the absurd tradition, the parents show time and again to be easily perverted.
Maas's attractive visual sense generally accentuates these various dips and rises (with strong support from costume designer Oana Botez-Ban and light designers Lucrecia Briceno and Tim Cryan). This is a double-edged sword. Where sometimes Maas's staging serves to adeptly underscore a moment's subtext—as he does with the red scarf image—he bludgeons others with obviousness. (I'm thinking particularly of several scenes in which mother and father use their son as a sitting stool, needlessly emphasizing his subjection.)
The cast members bear up well, though. They know the work is, at bottom, a clown show—as pointed up by the many inventive costumes as well as through makeup (the parents, for instance, are powdered and lavishly rouged)—and the actors ratchet up the energy accordingly. Particularly fine work is done by van der Valk and Hollingsworth. However, it's Geuriera's imperturbable Faas who anchors the evening. He wisely refuses to play his unwilling shut-in as a child trapped in a man's body. Instead, he aims at the more interesting challenge of playing a man trapped in a child's life.
That van Warmerdam lacks the teeth for the viciousness of the unadulterated absurd makes his inclusion of a gun and its eventual use all the stranger. Yet from this misstep comes a crowning touch. With his father looking on, Faas steps off the stage and passes through the audience, out into the brisk air beyond the theater doors, from which we can hear real life humming on 11th Avenue. After a long, pained moment, the father offers a simple endorsement: "Goodbye, son."