Being a reviewer at a Richard Foreman play is kind of like being the youngest son of Jeff Daniels' character in The Squid and the Whale you wonder if you'll be dubbed a philistine if you're not quite in on what's going on. Richard Foreman, downtown New York's leading avant-gardist for decades, has recently come out of retirement at age 75 to mount his latest head-scratcher, Old Fashioned Prostitutes (A True Romance) at the Public Theater (where his work was last seen in 2009, with the Willem Dafoe-starring Idiot Savant). And, as ever, about 7 percent of the audience will feel vaguely enlightened and stimulated, and the rest of the philistines in the remaining 93 percent will look vaguely quizzical and slightly pained. This production even has one character occasionally flash a mirror toward the audience so you can see for yourself.
Boosted by a recent Kickstarter campaign, Prostitutes is impeccably turned out, using Foreman's signature stark colors (reds and blacks are always favored) and inventive lighting and sound design to fill in a disconnected story about a man (Rocco Sisto, committed as humanly possible) who orbits a coy coquette (Alenka Kraigher). Meanwhile, other figures, including another Gatsbyish moll (Stephanie Hayes) and the Michelin Man (Nicolas Noreña), swirl the stage throwing empty boxes, phone books, and other junk while repeating wide-eyed declarations that sound like Tennessee Williams after several whiskeys. (''This is true because I desire always'' is a sampler.) And yes, this is one of those performances where you hear the title repeated so often you wonder if the creator didn't want you to forget momentarily what the play's called.
You may have guessed that Foreman's work isn't for everyone, but even at a scant 64 minutes (not 65, but 64, you are told), Prostitutes fails to put out. Some of his more memorable recent productions (Permanent Brain Damage, Pearls For Pigs) are just as inscrutable, but somehow seeped into your consciousness in a mischievous way this production never does. Prostitutes keeps on knocking, but never gets in. C-