Review: ‘The Watering Hole’ Can’t Quite Quench a Thirst

The day I went to the Signature Theater it was so hellishly hot out that it felt as if the air was clinging to my skin. So I stepped into the air-conditioned coolness of the Pershing Square Signature Center for “The Watering Hole,” a theatrical installation conceived and curated by the Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage. What I’d hoped for was refreshment. What I left with was a thirst for a more memorable and neatly composed offering.

“The Watering Hole,” directed by Miranda Haymon, is a collaborative project featuring work by Haymon and Nottage along with Christina Anderson, Matt Barbot, Montana Levi Blanco, Stefania Bulbarella, Amith Chandrashaker, nicHi douglas, Iyvon E., Justin Ellington, Emmie Finckel, Vanessa German, Ryan J. Haddad, Phillip Howze, Haruna Lee, Campbell Silverstein, Charly Evon Simpson and Rhiana Yazzie. For each 80-minute show, a small audience is split into two groups and led through the lobby, dressing rooms, theaters and backstage areas, where they encounter sculptures, audiovisual installations and interactive activities.

Part of the conceit, after all, is locating the theater as a gathering space — a place for collaboration. At least I think it is. The production is too heterogeneous and muddled to rally around one clear theme or concept.

The grand staircase of the Signature Center is the first stop. The whole space is outlined with sea-blue walking paths and water drop stickers marking where to stand at a safe social distance. Audio interviews from the artists, in which most of them talk about ancestry, play through speakers. So this show is about heritage and ancestry? Well, no. Because there’s all of the water, like a video of Haddad in which he talks about how he, as a disabled man, learned how to swim. So perhaps it’s about independence and resiliency? Then what about German and Lee’s original song, “This Room Is a Broken Heart,” which plays on a mind-numbing loop in the lobby and talks about water as a symbol of grief? And Anderson and Harmon’s karaoke-inspired piece in a dressing room, where there’s a “Big”-style floor piano that you’re invited to use to accompany a song playing on the TV?

These are the parts of the show that fly off into the theater ether, like the piece that shows a projection of a figure in a lotus pose who talks about energies, frequencies and chakras. But then this is paired with more literal meditations on water: In one part of the show, in some back hallway, there’s a corner set up for a “dance break,” with a mound of sand, blue and pink fluorescent lights and some slightly deflated beach balls. In that same hallway there’s a corkboard with beach photos and water-themed poems by Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton, Ada Limón and Natalie Shapero, among others.

The most traditional theater piece, “Spray Cap” (created by Barbot and Chandrashaker with Colon-Zayas), a monologue about yearning to come together and celebrate summer after a time of pandemic and isolation, is also the strongest. It’s not just the straightforward approach but the cohesion of it — the clarity of voice and themes, and the clear tie to the installation at large — that highlights what the rest of the production lacks. Even the set design — a stage with two park benches and some crates arranged around a giant hydrant that puffs out steam — fits perfectly with the speaker’s desire for everyone to “come out” and let themselves go in the brutal heat of a summer when people can finally meet up and touch.

“Spray Cap” has one of the few designs that actually work in the installation, unlike the handwritten notes and scrolls with words and reflections taped on the walls throughout the complex. Haddad’s video is played in a dark room with a ceiling that projects water scenes and a reflective floor that matches the same cool blue of the pool. And one of three lobby sailboat sculptures — an ornate medley of trinkets and knickknacks like bird figurines, shells and water bottles, along with a white baby piano — is a stunning visual work by German and Lee.

But all this still fails to illuminate the upshot. Because “The Watering Hole” also seems to have an interest in a kind of community service. Nottage has said that the “inspiration and organizing principle” of the project came from a collaborative reflection on the Signature as a meeting place. And so one part of the show invites the audience to write on little “sails” what makes them feel safe and add them to a boat in the lobby. And another boat in the lobby holds postcards that audience members are prompted to fill out and write to incarcerated people. Though well-intentioned, it’s hard to find the connective tissue here or, as Nottage says, the organizing principle.

Whatever “The Watering Hole” means to express, it’s drowned in this sea of artists.

The Watering Hole
Through Aug. 8 Pershing Square Signature Center, Manhattan; 212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org.

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