By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
If there is anything New Yorkers like to talk about more than restaurants it’s real estate. In the Footprint: The Battle over Atlantic Yards, performed by the Civilians at the Annenberg Center, is a musical docudrama about the unpromising topic of “eminent domain”—the complex real estate legality that can crush the individual homeowner in the jaws of corporate takeover.
The Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn has dragged on for seven years; it began when Bruce Ratner decided to build an arena for basketball in Prospect Heights, a land grab that involved displacing more than 800 people, In the course of various battles, the community was split many different, often surprising ways: black leaders find themselves opposed by black citizens, liberal leaders find themselves allied with big money, a Russian oligarch buys the New Jersey Nets (herein referred to as the Nyets—one of two actually funny moments in the course of the 100-minute evening), the eminent architect Frank Gehry’s design is ditched, and the bloggers have a field day.
It is civic life as its least civil: shouting, haranguing, belligerent, self-righteous, outraged.
And though Philadelphia audiences may care theoretically about the issues (and maybe the score by Germantown Friends School grad Michael Friedman), we can’t care much about the place names, the street names, the delis, the mom-and-pops that go the way of mom-and-pop. And because the show is a retrospective of the battle over Atlantic Yards, it is really just whining and handwringing; it’s over before the show begins, so there is no need, much less inclination, to jump to our feet, fists in the air. This is especially so because the characters are so unappealing and the show is so unfocused (probably a function of both a messy script and fuzzy direction by Steve Cosson).
Docudrama of the kind the Civilians specialize in involves interviewing many people, replicating many speeches, public and private, to assemble and present a variety of views about a issue of intense communal interest: health care, for example, or gang warfare, or race riots. Anna Deveare Smith is better at this kind of verbatim theater than anybody, although Danny Hoch is terrific, too (his fierce and edgy show, Taking Over, is, similarly, about the gentrification of his Brooklyn neighborhood) . This troupe (Gibson Frazier, Nina Hellman, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Jordan Mahome, Simone Moore and Brian Sgambati) lacks the vividness and the energy as well as the wit to make us care enough about their subject.
Harold Prince Theatre, Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St. Through Jan.29. Tickets $20-30.Information: Annenbergcenter.org or 215.898.3900.