New York — As a moviegoer, I'm not sure I like the title of Richard Foreman's latest theater piece, which has just won the 1987 Obie award as best new Off Broadway play of the season. It's called ``Film Is Evil: Radio Is Good.'' It would be hard to say whether Mr. Foreman means that slogan or not, since this is a typical Foreman show - making few direct statements but containing many layers of meaning, all fractured into tiny slivers of theatrical language and gesture.
Foreman does take pains, though, to spell out a plausible reason for believing such a thing. Radio awakens our imaginations, his play didactically tells us, by appealing to only one of our senses. Film, which fills our eyes and ears at the same time, deadens the heart and dictates to the mind.
This isn't a new argument, and Foreman doesn't dwell on it long. It's just a starting point for his latest intellectual journey into the heart of contemporary culture, which he sees as the breeding ground for all that's most stimulating and most treacherous in human experience.
What is new is the setting for Foreman's latest offering. ``Film Is Evil: Radio Is Good'' is onstage (through June 6) at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (NYU) and represents the first time Foreman has worked with a cast made up largely of students.
Also on hand are such Off Broadway veterans as Kate Manheim and Lola Pashalinski, plus Foreman himself in his acting debut. The show is presented by NYU and Foreman's own Ontological-Hysteric Theater.
As usual for a Foreman play, the action is a free-for-all of ideas and feelings, all engaged in rollicking battle on the most slippery terrain the author can provide.
It's so slippery, in fact, that the centerpiece of ``Film Is Evil'' turns out to be a film. Shot in black-and-white and called ``Radio Rick in Heaven and Radio Richard in Hell,'' it's a 15-minute-long beauty, as tight and sardonic as anything Foreman has done in some time.
The main characters of ``Film Is Evil: Radio Is Good'' are two women and a man whose lives revolve around a mysterious radio station. It would take many words to unravel their strange, often inscrutable relationship and the story (more of a jigsaw puzzle than a conventional plot) that binds them together.
Suffice to say that at least two symbolic struggles - one between art and technology, the other between image and actuality - seem to be raging away in their hearts and minds, with the radio station becoming a kind of focal point for their mental energies.
Foreman has little interest in the narrative and psychological developments that are the mainstays of ordinary theater. He's less a playwright than a modernist poet of the stage - making fluid theatrical sculptures out of bits and pieces of meaning that reflect, in their very fragmentation, the fractured sensibilities of humanity in the media-bombarded 20th century.
``Film Is Evil: Radio Is Good'' shows him at his most complex and provocative, and also at his most obsessive - one feels exhausted by the intensity of the brief but verbally and visually relentless proceedings.
The performers of ``Film Is Evil: Radio Is Good'' have effortlessly tuned into Foreman's unconventional wavelength. Miss Manheim, perhaps the definitive Foreman actress, leads the way with an unusually emotion-rich performance. Miss Pashalinski and David Patrick Kelly are right on her heels, followed by the 12 students in the cast, who lend a sense of freshness and vigor even though Foreman gives few of them any distinctive moments to show off individual talents.
The film segment, crisply photographed by Babette Mangolte, shows Foreman to be a surprisingly strong actor - as well as a better movie director than his earlier film (and video) work has suggested. I hope he decides film isn't so evil after all and continues to develop his obvious talent in that area.