(Part of the 8th Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival)
Three "friends" watch as a self-absorbed actress with dreams of stardom dies slowly of cervical cancer developed from HVP (the human papillomavirus). Although HPV is a welcome and novel theme for theatre, this production lacks focus, good direction, and a strong impression.
Reviewed by Cindy Pierre
Writer and director Katie Lemos revamps the concept of musical theatre in Four Unfold: A City Story with Song. The music, in the form of TJ Moss' (Sam) groovy, coffee-house ballads, is intimate and has character. This fits well with the quiet, hesitant performances of the cast, but also mutes the possibility of any excitement in the show.
With a sparse, living room setting and a small performance space, Four Unfold begins like a whisper and never rises above the hush. Set in New York, the lives of four people weave into this drama, but only glamorous Tess (a ravaged Abigail Taylor) enjoys a portrayal beyond a sketch. Tess is the HPV-stricken actress and model who ignores the virus in pursuit of fame and fortune. Contracted from a polyamorous lover, Tess ignores the HPV, swears off sex, and proceeds with her ambitions, even at the expense of her health and reason. Unfortunately, her relentless drive allows the virus to mutate into a cancer that is slowly killing her.
Along the way, she antagonizes, confounds, and unites her acquaintances: sweet and energetic dancer Annie (Sarah Spritzer); surly, straight shooter Aden (Jonathan Gregg); and Sam. Strangely enough, Tess is not the protagonist. Sam, the musician who strums his guitar to lace together scenes and whom we know the least about, is. It is through him that the remainder of the cast gets acquainted, and it is through his tolerance that they are all affected by Tess' last days.
Sam's role as commentator to the events unfolding around him makes his songs appealing, but also makes him the antithesis of what a central character should be. He participates in scenes, but only as a drifter, never fully rooted in the action or connected with his friends (except for a nice game of Go Fish with Aden and Annie). His failure to establish himself as a dominant force is partially due to his performance and partially due to the role written by Lemos. Annie, his supportive and lovelorn roommate, is only a fraction of a character, having transplanted from LA to NY to pursue dancing for the art of it. Spritzer handles that fraction well, however, to flaunt her ease with pep and devotion. Sam's gay friend Aden weighs in with the secondary struggle of the play: the acceptance of his sexuality by his parents. Although Gregg's jock bravado is too strong for him to convey Aden's sensitivity, Lemos gives Aden choice lines that are grounded in reality. While they treat Sam with the utmost importance, Sam doesn't do anything to deserve it. He's too casual and mumbly to be his own person, and draws his identity from his friends' neediness.
Although HPV plays a large part in the plot, very little is revealed about this virus in the play. The education comes in the form of an insert for the show's playbill instead. In fact, if you are not privy to media attention currently being given to HPV, you might leave the show with very little knowledge of this growing problem. It doesn't help that the other characters spend most of the time disliking Tess, Four Unfold's poster child for HPV. It makes it very difficult to be sympathetic towards her, even if her desire to leave behind a legacy is a common one.
Because of the gravity of cervical cancer, the musical segues from deep conversations seem odd and contrived. The monologues that introduce (and interrupt) scenes are annoying, and always seem to lack real punch by the actors. With a 2 hour and 10 minute running time, the show could have ended 25 minutes earlier with a clear conclusion. Instead, Lemos insists on wrapping up each of the characters' stories in neat little bows that should have been left undone.
Additionally, on a technical level, the lighting cues for the show were too sharp for the relaxed atmosphere of Moss' music and the hum of the industrial air conditioner overrode Moss' guitar playing and sometimes the actors' lines.
Four Unfold: A City Story With Song is a timely musical which needs a lot of work before it can become a success. There is great material present, but this production needs heavy workshopping to reach its full potential.
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.