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.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

medEia

By resetting the classic tragedy of Medea in the mode of pop lyrics, modern images, and simple English, Dood Paard (Dead Horse) is trying for the universal. Instead, they're just hitting the accessible, in an at first languorous, later vibrant way.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Some people will swear to the universality of music, the way that simple lyrics and easy grooves float directly into one's subconscious, there to live forever. Others will testify to the clear, unambiguity of a picture -- a thousand-word image that breaks down linguistic barriers and pierces the heart. Still others will swear to the thousands-of-years-old Greek dramas, which are still as relevant now as they were then; a testament to the emotions we all live and die by. Whether or not Oscar van Woensel had any of this in mind when he reworked Euripides' Medea (along with his Amsterdam-based company, Dood Paard), his play interjects pop lyrics into a stream of consciousness text that jumps from the removed summary of the third person chorus to the involved passion of first person tragic.

At first, the work feels like it's beating a dead horse (Dood Paard means that in English): the three actors (van Woensel, Manja Topper, and Kuno Bakker) pull a battered, parchment-thin curtain up so that it veils a piercing row of lights, then stand in front of it like weathermen before a blue screen and explain the story of Medea (how Jason came to Kolchis seeking the Golden Fleece so that he might be made king by Peleas; how Medea helped him, only to be spurned by Jason's love for King Creaon's virgin daughter; how Medea revenged herself by killing the children she shared with Jason). After twenty minutes of dialogue, the actors rip down the curtain, pull another one up (closer to the audience this time), and project musically accompanied slides (clicked through so rapidly that they are barely recognizable) across the screen. Wash, rinse, and repeat, it seems.

In actuality, this is more like a dance of the seven veils: each of the four segments grows more involved, less removed both from the text and from the audience. The text, so simply written in what Dood Pard calls a "Euro-English," starts to develop a rhythm to the ear, and the pop lyrics grow more and more identifiable. For instance:
Survival of the fittest
I will survive
So turn around now
You're not welcome anymore
Iason
Be strong
Now you need it

I need it

All you need is love

Ohblahdi ohbladah
Life goes on bra
Lalalalalife goes on
There are some nice moments in medEia, but too much of the presentation seems disconnected, particularly the musical interludes and accompanying slide-show. Throwing in an image of Bush, any image, forces the mind to think of other things, and those comparisons just aren't there (not like they are in, say, Iphigenia 2.0). If this was meant to be transformative or startling, it's not. But the plain prose is intriguing, as is Dood Paard's back-to-the-wall delivery of it, and the story really is (and probably always will be) universal.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Australia Project II: Australia Strikes Back ( Week 3)

The Australia Project II's third and final week bashes and hashes out America's allure and wonder, as well as its pockets of seedy and greedy. While some of the perspectives on the U.S. are presented in a funny and creative way, the critiques in these one-acts are nothing new and not always integral to the U.S. itself.

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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

The new beginnings, the constant buzz of information overload, the grotesque, the roach-infested, the United States. The final installment of America's analysis in Week 3 of The Australia Project II: Australia Strikes Back bites and scratches its way into our sensitivities with some over-the-top explorations of American culture. The writing styles presented in these four one-acts are as varied as they are prickly, and despite your individual taste, these playwrights all have a strong, distinct voice.

Veronica Gleeson's All This Beautiful Life opens the show with America as a new venture and land of opportunity. Ron (Sean Williams) and May (Mary Cross) Greengrass are packing for the trip to the U.S. with their implied daughter, arguing about the bare essentials for the move. During their discussion about the pros and cons of moving, their child goes missing and they proceed to frantically search for her. Gleeson deals with issues of safety and necessity here, using both latent and obvious symbols. Likened to a trip to space, America's allure is explored without sacrificing Australia's own offerings. Although the intentions are great, this piece is not the most memorable of the quad.

Ben Ellis' Beneath Us is an exploration of U.S. commercialism, unrest, and mania. Novelist Tomasz (Joseph J. Menino) is expecting his agent, Barbara (Ilene Bergelson) for dinner when she unexpectedly brings her husband James (Tim McGeever) as a guest. James' presence throws Tomasz for a loop because he only has enough furniture to accommodate one visitor at a time. However, he is clearly troubled by much more than that. With the assistance of Stacey Boggs' staccato lighting design and Ann Warren's great sound effects, the production conveys the pulsating thoughts that compel writers to write. In Beneath Us, Ellis explores themes of too much opportunity and too much buzz in the American culture. As Tomasz, Menino is sufficiently anguished to make the audience believe it.

An estranged brother and son comes home from Iraq very different but still the same in Continuing Occupation by Van Badham. Soldier Josh's (Michael Poignand) homecoming is anything but mundane, with pothead sister Jenni (Erin Maya Darke) seething with an aversion towards him and his reality-deprived Mom (a wonderful Nancy Sirianni) fawning over his meals. Fresh from occupied Iraq, Josh returns with the same wartime frame of mind, callous, distant, and spewing unspeakable things. Yet, Josh wasn't a saint before he left. Apparently, he always liked it violent, having forced himself on his sister (hence the aversion) in their youth. We learn that the patriarch of the family has passed away, and Josh, in addition to bringing the grotesque to the house, has also arrived with a plan for the family's future.

Easily the most shocking of the plays as well as the most absurd, Continuing Occupation is harsh and unrelenting in its criticism of our foreign policies. Mac Rogers plays a variety of colorful characters, all symbolic figures of protest and commentary. They pop out of dining tables, peer through windows, and spook Jenni even though Mom behaves as if they're staples of the house. The direction by Jordana Williams is strong, particularly in the finely executed rumble scene between Jenni and Josh. The cardboard food is hilarious, and just what you would expect from this pseudo-farce. Although the themes are sandwiched together, Continuing Occupation is exciting in a sordid kind of way.

Runner-up for most absurd of the night is Alexandra Collier's The Will of the Cockroach. A young Aussie couple (the only ones with notable Australian accents), D and Susie (Tim Major and Mary Jane Gibson, respectively), have just moved to Brooklyn, New York from Sydney to pursue a different, and hopefully, better life. They move into a dump, and soon discover that there is a third, larger than life tenant in their modest apartment. Cockroach (Joel Israel), six-foot plus and clad in a chocolate brown leather roach getup, asserts his right to be in the apartment and in the universe right away. As the couple work in jobs that are well below their capacity, they tire of their misfortune, and D longs for home. Cockroach approaches them individually, teaching them the ways of survival and strength, and there is even a romantic interlude involved. Major and Gibson have wonderful chemistry, and despite the light overtones of the play, manage to convey warmth and a connection. You can expect to hear similar jokes to the ones that you've always heard about roaches in New York in The Will of the Cockroach, but with extra verve and extra humor. Collier attacks New York's obsessions with enhancements and escape. "There's nothing real here in NY" D declares, along with his disgust. There is however, real roach spray and powder used in the production, so front-row enthusiasts, beware.

Week 3 of The Australia Project II: Australia Strikes Back is an immodest display of derision and praise, with a generous helping of off-the-wall and depravity. Although none of the productions are flawless, they all concede to the notion of the U.S. as a land of opportunity in their own distinct way, honorable or not. And making those opinions loud and clear is an accomplishment in and of itself.

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Through September 30th. Tickets: $18. 212-352-3101. http://www.theatermania.com/content/theater.cfm?intTheaterID=4288217 E. 42nd StreetNew York, NY 10017.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

New Theater Corps on Theater Talk

This week you can catch THEATER TALK's "New Theater Corps" members AARON RICCIO and CINDY PIERRE on Theater Talk, 9/29 @ 12:30 a.m. on Channel 13. They'll be interviewing OSKAR EUSTIS, Artistic Director of the Public Theater about The Public's 365 DAYS/365 PLAYS Festival, SUZAN LORI-PARKS' audacious project in which the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright wrote one play, every day, for a year. Fifty-two theater companies were then chosen to interpret these works, now being presented all over America.

Highlights of the best of these productions are being presented one Sunday a month at The Public. Riccio and Pierre also talk to directors of: The Ma-Yi. TADA!, Classical Theatre of Harlem, H.A.D.L.E.Y. and Mud/Bone companies, who introduce highlights from their respective 365 presentations (taped 9/9/07).

Also on the program, an encore of our interview with actors PETER BARTLETT of THE DROWSY CHAPERONE and LEE ROY REAMS of THE PRODUCERS, who discuss the art of being replacement actors in Broadway musicals (#1319, taped 4/14/07).

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Australia Project II: Australia Strikes Back (Week 2)

The second of the three-week Australia Project imports three more one-acts, bringing with it a whole lot of attitude, a whole lot of slang, and a heartbreaking play that once again reminds us that beneath all the accents, past all the languages, we're all human.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

More of the same can be a good thing. Last week, The Production Company treated us to four off-kilter one acts, all of which were written by Australian playwrights who were thinking of America at the time. This week, it's another three one-acts, from the occasionally filth "967 Tuna" (Australian for excellent) to the beautiful "The Beekeeper" (no Australian translation needed there) and the hypnotically turbulent "Syphon."

The strongest piece is Emma Vuletic's "The Beekeeper," which sets the plight of colony collapse disorder (a k a, where are all the bees in America going?) against an Australian mother's inability to properly carry a child to term. Just as America imports Australian bees to keep their hives alive, Olivia (Chandler Vinton), turns to an American surrogate, Amber (Lethia Nall), to help her finally deliver a baby to term. (Such work is illegal Down Under.) Patrick McNulty plays with swift lighting cues to jump cuts between moments in time, but his best choice is to have distance communicated by silence rather than space. The two stand close to one other as they talk (or don't) by e-mail, and these quiet moments are tender and effective. Vuletic's writing is also very strong, jumping between the natural conversation, monologues about bees, and occasional legalese (to enforce the alienating "contract"). Vinton crackles through Olivia's necessary stiffness, adding a dash of loose desperation that connects us to her nerves, and Nall, rarely dropping her forced nonchalance, manages to convey a stream of raw emotions.

Brendan Cowell's "967 Tuna," on the other hand, is a play of surfaces. Jeremy (Nick Flint), a hyperchill Australian, rents a fishing boat from an uptight American, Captain Steve (Michael Gnat). As they converse (in a short and snappy patter that brings a mellower David Rabe to mind), the American becomes increasingly possessive and bellicose, while the carefree Australian's thick skin starts to become a frightened shell. The script is too playful--shallow ruminations from stereotypes--and while Flint and Gnat have great chemistry, Mark Armstrong can't steer the script into deeper waters. (Instead, he succeeds at dressing it up, evoking the cramped deck, the lapping nausea of waves, and an exciting high-speed drive.)
Steve's wife, Dorothy (Sarah Eliana Bisman) is a deus ex machina, a physical metaphor for the daunting US(A), but her slow, unnatural dialogue clashes with the clipped tones of the play and ultimately serves as little more than a life raft off a meandering ship.

Tommy Murphy's "Syphon," on yet another hand, is buried so deep under the skin that it's never clear why your skin prickles. Perhaps its the deadened performances from Stephen Pilkington and Todd d'Amour, two druggies who come to live with the obsessive compulsive Isabelle (Erin Krakow), or perhaps it's the way time flies by--days, weeks, months, years--without bringing anything more than superficial changes. Murphy metes out the pace with staccato mundaneness ("Hey," "Yah," and "Dunno" are the oft-repeated "lyrics"), and director Shoshana Gold brings in the absurd properties with a slow, at first imperceptible, fade. But the conclusion fizzles where it should explode, not a bad trip so much as an impenetrable one. You want to go along for the ride, but you can't seem to follow homeless "monsters" or the senselessness of a student uprising.

As individual pieces, only "The Beekeeper" stands on its own, but as a collection, the Week 2 series serves to showcase not just Australian playwrights, each with their own unique styles and visions, but the directors and actors importing those views to America. And that's just filth. Your last chance to check out the four plays of Week 3 is 9/27-9/30 at chashama.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Ivo Van Hove's The Misanthrope

For all the surprises, excitement, and graphic imagery that Ivo Van Hove has managed to cram into a revival of Moliere's 1666 play, The Misanthrope, it's almost criminal to read this review unless you've already seen the play. This is a raw experience: overwhelmingly visceral, astonishingly animal, and flawlessly acted, it's a rare all-in-one theatrical work.

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Early on in The Misanthrope, our titular (anti)hero Alceste (a phenomenally dour, Rickman-like Bill Camp) proclaims: "We ought to punish pitilessly that shameful pretense of friendly intercourse. I like a man to be a man, and to show on all occasions the bottom of his heart in his discourse. Let that be the thing to speak, and never let our feelings be hidden beneath vain compliments."* If ever a director has agreed with this virtuous rant, it is Ivo Van Hove, who punishes his actors, using animalistic direction to drag out the savage bottom of their hearts, confrontational camera work to keep feelings from being hidden (or from running of stage), and superficial props (like food and garbage) to, ironically, strip away the superficial.

The play opens with sped-up shots of the cast having their makeup applied, which serves both to be frank (Van Hove seems reluctant to partition actors from their roles), and to establish the vanity of these characters. Then the overhead lights flicker with their harsh glow, and we find Philinte (a straight-faced
Thomas Jay Ryan) trying to convince Alceste to be a little less brutally honest. Poor Alceste tries, with the self-proclaimed poet Oronte (Alfredo Narciso), but the bile boils over. Only with his lover, Celimene (Jeanine Serralles) is he more docile: he has the blind faith that he can change her. Instead, he ought to fear her more: she flirts so shamelessly with her "friends" (Acaste and Clitandre, played by Joan Macintosh and Jason C. Brown) that even the hypocritical prude, Arsinoe (Amelia Campbell) chastises her, and her cousin, Eliante (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), refuses to take her side. The entire cast is outstanding, particularly Bill Camp, and Serralles stands out (as she did in The Black Eyed), with her easy transitions between moods, pivots which are essential for illustrating the double-talk of socialites.

For emphasis, Jan Versweyveld's set limns them with sleek black reflective walls, displays them on a giant screen that makes up most of the back wall, and frames them with a series of windowless fourth walls. No matter where they go, the cameras (hidden behind the walls) follow, especially when they run (as they frequently do) offstage. It's a powerful effect, heightened by the harsh modernization of Harrison's translation and by Van Hove's violent, surprising direction.

The most striking scene has Celimene and her high-powered friends gathered around a table filled with the most decadent and fatty treats, all simultaneously talking on their cell phones and gorgeously gorging. In walks a fed-up Alceste, who turns their dinner party into a grotesque as he anoints himself with hot fudge, douses himself in ketchup, pours spaghetti and whipped cream down his pants, and crowns himself with half a watermelon.

Photo/Joan Marcus

Inflammatory staging such as this amplifies Moliere's words: at last the physical is as scathing as the verbal, and still--because of the often metaphoric qualities--subtle to a degree. They also help to build the emotion: rather than rushed rhyming couplets, the text now has a jazzy quality to it, with seductive rolls on the floor between lovers or prolonged and ridiculous wrestling matches between rivals. Such direct actions give way to the language--now ragged and sometimes clipped--and juxtapose the clean structure with the dirty truth.

The choice for an overbearing soundtrack, added to an already cinematic production, does steal from the effect. The actors are so crisp (even if their mikes are not) that it is unfair to make them fight music as well as emotion to make their point. Also, there are some segments that Van Hove hasn't quite figured out: Alceste's metadramatic use of a cameraman to reveal Celimene's betrayal is funny, but nothing more, and a video conference call between two cell phones and a Blackberry is awkward. (To be fair, it's awkward in the script, too.) Every play, no matter how experimental, must have some rules, and at times, it feels like Van Hove is cheating for the sake of aestheticism, not the integrity of the script.

Let him cheat. Ivo Van Hove is a brilliant auteur, and his work here, while distinctive, doesn't hurt Moliere, it just makes the revival fresh and unique. Van Hove, who seems to agree with Alceste that there should be frankness in all things, has put his reputation out on the table, spattered and splayed it across the walls. In return, he has made an unforgettably graphic comedy out of The Misanthrope, and that's a beautiful thing.

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New York Theater Workshop (79 East 4th Street)
Tickets (212-239-6200): $65.00
Performances (through 11/11): Tues. & Sun. @ 7 | Wed. - Sat. @ 8 | Sat. @ 3 | Sun. @ 2

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Six Degrees of Separation

The heart of this revival of Six Degrees of Separation still beats strong, but it's clogged by some odd directorial choices that add absurdism to the opening, and prolong the farce too far into the drama. Some uneven acting (in a cast of 17) doesn't really help, and the play winds up a tame, pleasant production, rather than a sharp glimpse at our anonymous lives.

Photo/Jennifer Maufrais

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation is a tough play to revive: there are seventeen roles, but only really three or four parts, and a good director needs to find enough balance to make the show seem evener than it is. Tom Wojtunik, however, looks like he's riding by the seat of his pants, thrusting props onstage with the aid of two gloved Seussian hands, setting large dramatic scenes in elevated boxes within the backstage wall, and letting the actors generally do as they please.

In some places, Wojtunik's style seems natural: the shock value of a naked hustler, say, or the beautifully bookending image of a spinning, double-sided Kandinsky (my favorite artist). In others--particularly with the children, or when there are many characters on stage--the blocking looks staged, and the acting seems forced. For a show that talks about the death of imagination, it's a little worrisome to see so much generic work, but then again, it's hard to flesh out parts that Guare has intentionally underwritten, especially in ninety minutes.

The challenge of Six Degrees of Separation is staying a character and not becoming a point. Too often in this production--as with the four children, the friends of Ouisa and Flan, and the various detectives and policemen--the roles become examples of disconnection, rather than simply people who happen to be disconnected from one another. (Ben Roberts and Jacqueline van Biene, who play two naive lovers from the West, are proof that you can naturally be both a real person and a model of something at the same time.) And while placing phone callers in a raised black box within the wall seems at first like a good device, it makes it less alienating, and leads the actors to overemote.

However, where Guare has focussed his script is also where Wojtunik has done a marvelous job. Ouisa (Laura Heidinger) comes across well as the socialite wife (two millions dollars, two million dollars) who develops a conscience for the world around her, whereas Flan (Mark Hattan) provides a nice balance for her zeal by remaining a cold yet genial realist. As for Paul, Richard Prioleau really makes him seem like an autodidact, the sort of self-made genius who is an expert at fitting pieces together, which in turn allows him to fit in. His transformation from a rough street youth who slurs the word "bottle," into the self-proclaimed son of Sidney Poitier is a rich one, and the only regret is that his big final scene is at a remove, set (like all phone calls) deep against the back wall.

Ultimately, Six Degrees of Separation comes off more as a pleasant production than as a biting look at the meaning of, and connection to, life. The hurried pace of the opening runs out of breath in the sagging middle of the play, and the actors all seem uniformly pleasant, without a scrap of menace or, more unfortunately, presence. The bold exceptions, both in the acting and Wojtunik's direction, only emphasize the separation, and though there are enjoyable moments, I left the theater a little disillusioned.

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Gallery Players Theater (199 14th Street, Brooklyn)
Tickets (212-352-3101): $18.00
Performances: 9/23 @ 3 | 9/27 - 9/29 @ 8 | 9/29 @ 2 | 9/30 @ 3

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Have You Seen Steve Steven?

Two teens with abnormally chipper families are visited and changed by personalities in their dreams in a strange display of reality meets fantasy. Although this production by 13P (Thirteen Playwrights, Inc.) is unpredictable and upsets the concept of security and knowledge, it is too abstract for good digestion.

From left to right: Brandon Bales, Stephanie Wright Thompson and Jocelyn Kuritsky

Photo by Jim Baldassare
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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

The Clarkson family is expecting the Dudleys over for company, but they wind up entertaining more guests than anticipated in Ann Marie Healy's Have You Seen Steve Steven? The story begins with lethargic teenager Kathleen Clarkson (Stephanie Wright Thompson) idling at home until her exceedingly chipper mother Mary (Alissa Ford) comes in to tell her that her friends Jane (Kate Hampton) and Bill (Frank Deal) are coming over with their son and Kathleen's childhood friend, Thomas (Brandon Bales). Mary's husband Frank (Tom Riis Farrell) surfaces from the basement, and the primping for the guests begins with deciding who will take a bath first, and where the rest of the Shiraz is. Kathleen's mood remains brooding against her parents' cheerful attitudes and thick Midwestern accents (think Kitty Forman from That 70s Show in overdrive) even after she paints her face with red-light district makeup.

While Kathleen is alone in the living room, the first Hank Mountain (Matthew Maher) “sighting” occurs. I use the term “sighting” because Hank, claiming to be a neighbor, seems to know everyone, but no one knows him. He drops by several times throughout the play, and along with his cohort Vera (Carol Rosenfeld), another peculiar neighbor, are seemingly figures from Kathleen and Thomas' dreams who know intimate details about their lives. As the Dudleys congregate, bringing along foreign exchange student Anlor (a wickedly funny and stunned Jocelyn Kuritsky), the play devolves into Twilight Zone fare. Powers of persuasion from Hank and Vera are absorbed, identities are erased, booze is guzzled, and Anlor awakens periodically from her sleep stupor to scream about her dreams. And in the middle of all this, a puppy named Steve Steven seems to have gone missing.

As intended, Sue Rees' set for Have You Seen Steve Steven? is an implied, three-storied mansion with warm tones. It creates a calming mood for the play that is interrupted by the craziness of the plot and characters. The opening sound effects by Jeremy J. Lee are appropriately wacky, and do prepare us for the shift from a normal narrative to an eerie one. Have You Seen Steve Steven? becomes so strange that the first half and the last half do not seem to be connected. In 90 minutes, the shift from tangible to intangible is so sharp that, like the Stanley Kubrick/Steven Spielberg film, AI: Artificial Intelligence, the play could have easily had two writers with two different visions.

The cast peers into the audience, using the fourth wall with no clear direction from Anne Kaufman about what they're looking at. Is it the front yard, or is it the hills? Also, Kathleen misses a choice opportunity to demonstrate her vulnerability by applying her makeup with her back turned to the audience rather than facing the audience. The parents in the cast are amusing but are all on the same exaggerated and disturbing tempo. There's a whole lot of dialogue, but not much else goes on. An underlying theme of unearthing secrets exists, and Vera and Hank seem to be the shovelers. Yet in this twilight world, one can never know for sure.

Have You Seen Steve Steven? keeps you on your toes, but you may get tired of the balancing act. It's a pseudo-scary comedy for sure, but the tactics used here are better suited for an episode of The Twilight Zone.

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Through October 6th. Tickets: 212-868-4444 $18. The 14th Street Theater

344 East 14th Street

New York, NY 10003

Friday, September 21, 2007

4F: The New Class

4F is one of those shows that looks like a whole lot of fun to be in, and hilarious if you know one of the actors in it, but from the outside, it is a funny show that needs to cut about 40 minutes of the un-funny out.

review by Elizabeth Devlin

If you were to invite eight of your most entertaining friends to your house and ask them all to parody different middle and high school stereotypes, you would probably end up with something very similar to “4F: the New Class”, the new comedy being produced by The Gossip Factory. Considering that the show was conceived, written, directed, designed by and starring the eight ensemble members, it would not be surprising if that is how the work came about.

The problem with this 'living-room' scenario, however, is that with no true storyline to propel the characters forward (the new kid is trying to start a club, but it’s the thinnest of plots), the parody begins to lose pace. The jokes become repetitive, the pop culture riffs grow tiring.

The nonstop mockery is funny for the first half hour, but then declines: making the ‘new kid’ a gay republican is a funny shtick…until it’s not. Same for the ignorant unwed mother from the south, and the class jock’s closeted homosexuality.

All of the actors are talented and funny, more so in their student roles than when they take on various teacher personas – the cool student teacher, the ‘Nam vet social studies teacher, the deaf math teacher (and when did that become a stereotype?).

This show makes sure that the following groups do not remain unscathed: republicans, conservative Christians, immigrant workers, WASPy employers of immigrant workers and anyone who was ever popular in school, ad infinitum.

The simplest moments are often the most entertaining: when the Dirty Kid asks out the goth girl, it’s funny because the audience cares about the outcome. While the Miss Teen South Carolina and Brittney Spears riffs are funny, they tire much faster than the comedy found in the actual characters.

4F is one of those shows that looks like a whole lot of fun to be in, and hilarious if you know one of the actors in it, but from the outside, it is a funny show that could have cut about 40 minutes of the un-funny out.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Have You Seen Steve Steven?

Ann Marie Healy's new play, Have You Seen Steve Steven? goes from being a snappy farce to a frightening satire, all in one charmingly alienating breath. Filled with equal parts of the genuine and the artificial, it's disarming and surprising, if just a little too cerebral at the end.

Photo/Jim Baldassare
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Remember that time when you were a kid, and you thought you knew better than your parents? Or that other time, when you got older and you realized that, for all your rebellion, you were becoming your parents? Or that last time, when you were really old, and you didn't remember either of these times? Anne Marie Healy's new play, Have You Seen Steve Steven? is appropriately funny as it dredges through the truths of the first two things, reflected in a homey Midwest McFamily, the culturally klutzy (yet obsessive) Clarksons. But it's the third thing that at last turns the work into a frightening satire, with an affectingly disaffecting series of onstage dismantlings of both family and memory, those tenuous connections to actual life.

Unlike other modern satirists like George Saunders, Ms. Healy grounds her work in the laughable concerns of the Clarksons as they prepare for their old friends, the Dudleys. But wait! They're out of Shiraz, there's a bean dip stain--pimento!--on the sofa, and neither Mary (who's been boastfully preparing a "hot dish" to go with the Ritz Bitz) nor Bill (who's been basking in the glow of his SONY 9877 projector system) has showered yet. If anything, things are too normal, which leads us, along with the daughter, Kathleen, to suspect (in that Eerie, Indiana sort of way) the intentions of the soft-spoken, neon-orange-hatted, bear of a neighbor that is Hank Mountain. (Rightfully so, but still...)

Our concerns are whisked away, however, by the speedy and efficient pace of Healy's script, and Anne Kauffman's disconcertingly cheery direction (similar to that in The Thugs). Our concerns are set aside by the arrival of Jane and Dudley, who come across as a slightly more in-the-know (i.e., pretentious) version of Mary and Frank. In other words, they're the sort of people who "order" an exchange student so as to seem concerned, but can't pronounce her name (Anlor), nor care to learn it. Tommy, their son, doesn't buy into their consumerism, for which he is rewarded with the sobriquet "Mister Ex-Pat," nor is he especially interested in reliving old times with Kathleen, except for mentioning their old imaginary dog, Steve Steven.

The play operates at first as a farce, with pratfalls from Frank as he tries to cover up the bean-dip stain and sight gags from a parade of personality-stealing puffy coats. But between the creepy neighbors (Hank is joined later by a sprightly old maid, Vera) and Tommy's gloomy realism, the show keeps transforming into something more sinister. The smiles we took to be genuine are quickly exposed as screw-on, and though there's love between the parents, it's one of deadening comfort, not livening passion. At first, the mispronunciation of Anlor's name (Rumbone, Rambone, Randor, Ranflor, ultimately the commercially captivating Rambo) is amusing, but as the night goes on, it becomes more like a sick joke on everyone involved.

As for Have You Seen Steve Steven? itself, Kaufmann has nailed the mood, Healy has caught the rhythms, and the cast has vibrantly brought it all to life. There's certainly room for the quirky discomfort to be repetitious, and the play's conclusion is so extremely--almost militarily--staged that it's hard to follow ("NETWORK IS PANINI!"), but the production itself is so crisp, so genuinely warm, that we follow these families into the hell of growing up (as Thomas puts it, right before breaking down, "Yeah. I'm. Totally taking this like a man..."). By no means is Steve Steven an easy play (I'm not sure I understand it all), but it is enjoyable, especially in the quiet, honest and awkward moments between the performers--moments where, for a second, it looks like they're just about to really connect, only to just as suddenly dismiss the impulse with a well placed Midwestern "wull." The whole cast is exceptional, but Alissa Ford and Tom Riis Farrel (Mary and Frank) pivot between needs particularly well, and Matthew Maher (Hank) is easily one of the year's most memorable villains.

The one gripe I will take up with the play is that it's hard to take Anlor seriously, and her role in the play's conclusion confuses more than it coheres. It's not the actress's fault--Jocelyn Kuritsky is alarmingly funny--but given that there are already two strangers at the dinner party, and that the play is mostly an attack on the walled-in American lifestyle, there just isn't any need for another Other.

What there is room for (as fresh young plays like God's Ear, The Thugs, and Dead City have demonstrated) is for discomforting comedy, for we are now, more than ever, living in a world where our laughter comes veiled in the shadow of our collective nervousness.

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East Fourteenth Street Theater (344 East 14th)

Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00

Performances (through 10/6): Wed. - Sat. @ 8:00

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Yellow Wood

(Part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival)

A Korean teen with ADD and identity issues searches for acceptance with the assistance of Robert Frost's poem, The Road Not Taken. Although some of the production elements fall very short of spectacular, this musical directed by BD Wong has a skillful, fun cast that inspires good cheer and amusement.
photo credit: Lillie Charles

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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Adam (a charismatic and sweet Jason Tam) has an over-imagined activation. At least, that's the term he came up with to describe his daytime flights of fancy when he's off his Ritalin. Oh yes, Adam has ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), and just this once, his mother (MaryAnn Hu) has allowed him to decide for himself about taking his meds. He opts to skip them on his first day of school, and that's where the confusion, excitement, and fun begins in Michelle Elliott and Danny Larsen's The Yellow Wood.

Adam's tag-along sister Gwen (an unfortunately nervous Yuka Takara in this role) is attending the same school with him for the first time, and her nagging isn't helping his plight: he needs to memorize and recite "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost, but he can't focus on anything but fellow yellow (a term to describe their inner sunshine) and ADD alum, Yellow Scooter Girl (Caissie Levy). While struggling to learn the poem by rote, he runs into the Librarian (Paul Clausen) who puts him on a journey: in order to memorize the poem, he must first learn the meaning behind it, and then apply it to his own life and circumstances. Adam then proceeds to swoop, dive, sing and dance his way to the poem's purpose and his own.

The cast and the musical numbers are The Yellow Wood's greatest strengths. Although the ensemble is exceedingly large and the musical does not exploit everyone's talents equally, the cast has wonderful energy and are all generally entertaining. Most notable are Randy Blair (honing his Jack Black) as Casserole, who steals every scene that he's in as Adam's hammy friend, and Jill Abramovitz as the mock-villainess Mrs. Mackleby. One peculiar thing that needs to be addressed is the ethnicity of Adam's family. Although Adam's family is said to be Korean, Takara is Japanese and the disparity in their backgrounds is noticeable.

The production itself is in many aspects, mediocre. The cast and stagehands can be seen from the side of the stage waiting for their cues as a person playing a child's game of double-dutch waits for the moment of action. A prop piece with a variety of uses such as a projection screen resembles a net for white sheets of laundry to ill effect. The "screen" displays slides that are important, but the presence of the projector onstage is a clunky choice. The musicians, also visible, have not quite identified a consistent volume level for the show, and it's noticeable because the music functions as a supporting character to Adam , specifically in the beginning. There are, however, some great numbers such as "Yellow", "Bring Me Cake!", "Tater Tot Casserole", and "Video Gamege", with the first act outdoing the second in songs. The choreography is laughable in some instances, but also wildly animated and effective in others such as in the "Dive In" number from Act One.

The Yellow Wood is inventive and creative, and does a good job of exploring teenage mayhem. The production, however, looks amateurish. With a few tweaks, the visuals can be on their way to matching the enthusiasm from the cast and the writing.

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Through October 1st. $20. Tickets: 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111. Acorn Theater

410 West 42nd St.New York, NY 10036


The Sheik

Medicine Show Theatre and Cressid Theatre Company present The Sheik, a farce with moments of hilarity and two shining actors, which nonetheless fails to be a cohesively entertaining piece.

Review by Elizabeth Devlin

Deloss Brown’s new play, The Sheik, is based upon Richard Steele’s early 18th century play, The Tender Husband. In this modernization of societal farce we meet Jack, an unscrupulous, chauvinistic man who needs to divorce his wife in order to placate his pregnant girlfriend /secretary, Patsy.

In an attempt to make himself seem the victim, he entices his gay employee Frank to lure his wife to a motel room, so that Jack may get photographic evidence that he is not the one to blame for the dissolution of the marriage.

The highlights of The Sheik include Amber Voiles, who plays Marty, the wife, and Jack Perry, who plays Frank and dons the Sheik identity in order to seduce Marty. The exchanges between the Sheik and Marty are the funniest moments in the play, and rely heavily on traditional comedic situations: the double identity of Frank/ Sheik, the miscommunications that occur because the Sheik does not ‘understand’ American language or culture, and the innocent woman being tempted after a few too many glasses of ‘non-alcoholic’ champagne. (The Sheik being Muslim and all.)

As the Sheik, Jack Perry is entertaining. As Frank, he becomes a neurotic gay stereotype who whines throughout most of the show. At the end, when Frank is forced to reexamine his relationship with Marty, we see both sides of the coin – he is neurotic, yes, but also charming.

The subplot of the lesbian hotel manager, Joanne, who befriends Frank and loves Patsy, is unnecessary to the overall story and serves little purpose than to elongate the show. Her observation that Patsy’s ultra-conservative beliefs are outmoded and ignorant are merely stating the obvious in the context of both the show and the Off-Broadway New York audience.

The characters of Patsy and Jack are stock farce: Jack is a jerk and there will never be redemption for him. Patsy is a nitwit, and her eventual realization that maybe she can’t ‘save’ Jack evokes no response from the audience, save “well, clearly!”.

Overall, the translation of the old farcical themes to the modern context do not work, as the writing makes the three act play seem longer by being superfluous and redundant at times.

“The Sheik” continues through Sept. 22 at the Medicine Show Theater, 549 West 52nd Street, Manhattan; (212) 868-4444, medicineshowtheatre.org.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Boy in the Bathroom

(Part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival)

A dreamer with plans to explore the world challenges the philosophy and cowardice of a college student who has locked himself in his bathroom for over a year. Although there are some problematic performance and prop choices, this musical is engaging and treats paralysis derived from fear and remorse with respect.

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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Michael Lluberes (Book and Lyrics, Director) and John Maloney's (Music and Additional Lyrics) The Boy in the Bathroom is the 100th production for the New York Musical Theatre Festival, and their contribution to a radical form of toilet humor. Scenic designer Seth Easter creates a welcome first stop in the morning, from the spic and span white tub and sink to the faux wall tiles in the form of a drop-down background. From the tub emerges David (a wonderfully puerile and pathetic Michael Zahler), the 24-year old man with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder who has turned his bathroom into living quarters. We don't exactly know what sends David skulking or screaming into the bathroom, but we do know that his coddling mother Pam (larger-than-life persona Mary Stout) isn't doing much to coax him out.

Nothing and no one can draw David out of the bathroom. He reads, theorizes, eats and sleeps in there, and not even his mom's frantic cries for help when she injures herself can make him leave his comfort zone. David sings us through the rituals of eating his mother's flat food and working on his senior thesis until his warped routine is interrupted by Julie (beautiful crooner and giddy Ana Nogueira), the home attendant hired to assist with Pam's needs while she recovers from her accident. No sooner does Julie, a fanciful girl saving up for a car to get out of town, assume extra housekeeping duties for Pam does she start to inquire and interact with the mysterious, faceless boy that lives in the bathroom. Julie quickly zeroes in on David's fears of contaminating and being contaminated by the world, and urges him to wonder and be free outside of his self-appointed boundaries. Hours of games and sharing secrets forges a pseudo-romance between them that requires David to make a choice: stay within his problem-free womb or fall into the arms of his new love.

Under Lluberes' strong direction, the actors all shine in their roles, but some of their choices are questionable. As David, Zahler washes his hands and shaves, but the lack of plumbing indicates that these are exercises in futility. A bubble machine creates a playground for childhood memories and innocence, but the noise of its operation competes too strongly with David's voice. The credibility of Prop Designer Stephanie Tucci's bathroom “door” (an outline rather than a solid door) is constantly violated by the actors because they inadvertently poke their hands through the invisible barrier. The use of an outline, however, helps to illustrate that David is free to come and go as he chooses, and there really are no solid limitations. The door itself, said to be half an inch from the floor in song, is clearly much higher than that upon inspection. Pam, a despondent mother agonizing over the past, occasionally sings songs with a fervor that is too dark, too serious, and too sad for the generally mild tone of this musical.

With “home-made” toilet paper rolls and beverages sucked from a straw under the door, it is clear that a lot of thought went into creating an existence within a bathroom and all of its dysfunctional connotations. Despite the prop and performance issues, The Boy in the Bathroom is an amusing romp into both fantasy and reality.

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Through September 29th. Tickets: $20. Order Tickets By Phone:212-352-3101

866-811-4111 (toll free), 45th Street Theatre 354 West 45th Street

New York, NY 10036



FRINGE: bombs in your mouth

Ah, for siblings like these: the ones who break your knuckles arm-wrestling, get into beer-chugging competitions with you, dredge up half-forgotten memories about shitting yourself, but all the while deep down love you.... Corey Patrick's impressive bombs in your mouth captures the love-hate relationship of families, especially fractured ones, in a "nut"shell, yet never comes across as crude, over-the-top, or false.

Photo/John Scott

Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

The bombs in the mouth from Corey Patrick's provocative title turn out to be nothing more than a poetic usage of popcorn, but the play is still plenty provocative. Bombs in your mouth is a compact comic drama about half-siblings reuniting in their Minnesotan home after six years to grieve the father neither of them loved. It isn't long before they start grieving their own more important failures, abetted by a few beer-chugging contests, some scatological childhood memories, and the sort of raging emotions that put the fun in dysfunction.

Patrick's script doesn't explain the dementia that led their father to write his memoirs on a roll of toilet paper, Kerouac style, nor the sudden snap that made Lily (Cass Bugge) write one of her ad spots as a whore thanking Valtrex for reducing her herpes long enough to get her bent over a table every now and again. Instead, the story puts us in their shoes, surrounding them with the frightening detritus of a life half-lived: cold spaghetti with tomato sauce and ketchup, Jello mold, beer, and Vikings blankets. It's not apparent at first what particular stick is up Danny's ass (Patrick), until we learn that his life--his entire world--goes only as far as the Pump 'n Pay he works at. He's not an alcoholic so much as a survivalist.

The greatest accomplishment of bombs in your mouth is how quiet something so raw can be. Director Joseph Ward understands what so many people in charge don't: that the sincerity of not knowing is a powerful, sympathetic, forgiving notion. As a result, there's not a moment that isn't focused and crisp, even if many of those moments are either nonsense arguments that rise out of agreements or are broken confessions of uncertainty. For all that the show yo-yos from highs to lows, Ward and his cast make it look more than natural: they make it plausible. By the end of bombs in your mouth, it's not just the squalling siblings who love each other: we love them, too.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Shape of Metal

Sparked by a dying man’s denial of paternity, a daughter forces her aging, tyrannical mother to give up long held family secrets in this Irish family drama by Thomas Kilroy, directed by Brian Murray.

Reviewed by Ilena George

Crippled by arthritis, confined to her chair, famed sculptor Nell Jeffrey (Roberta Max) still runs and ruins the life of her younger daughter, Judith (Julia Gibson). As the Museum of Modern Art in Kilmainhaim dismantles her studio piece by piece to open a permanent exhibit of Nell’s work, Judith tends to the man her mother claimed was her father; his dying words bring the familial ugliness she had swept under the mental rug out into the open. In addition to the question of paternity, which, when grilled about it, Nell responds, “My life was very crowded in those days,” Judith wants to get to the bottom of why her disturbed older sister, Grace (Molly Ward) left thirty years ago and was never heard from again.

The Jeffery household as it was, which we catch glimpses of through memories and flashbacks, was a forcibly eccentric one. No men, frequent excursions throughout the world prompted by a whim, and the expectation that normal and ordinary lives are abhorrent. Throughout the play, Roberta Max provides an electrifying stage presence; it’s easy to see how a life under Nell Jeffrey’s roof could be both thrilling and terrifying.

Oscillating between lucidity and confusion, the past and the present, bully and victim, success and failure, Max’s Nell vividly embodies a woman once at the top of her craft, now battling her body’s inevitable decline. For Nell, Gracie is the ghostly elephant in the room; her failed first attempt at parenting. This is addressed somewhat heavy handedly through the presence of “Egg Woman,” Nell’s failed sculpture that has a prominent place in her studio and toward which Grace expresses a particular affinity.

Julia Gibson gives a stately dignity to Judith, but as the straight-laced foil to Nell’s eccentricity and brilliance, her character cannot hope to compete with her mother’s magnetism. Nell’s acuity, now evident through pithy one-liners on the nature of life, art and love and her tendency to call her acquaintances by oxymoronic epithets (“Splendid bollocks,” “the adorable shit”) make the slow deterioration of her mind a tragedy.

Like its protagonist, the play meanders in its second half, losing its urgent pace. The big reveal of what prompted Gracie’s sudden departure turns out to be as sordid as promised but not quite as shocking as expected and what seemed to me to be the main question of the play remains unanswered: Where is Gracie now?

Instead, Nell continues musing on modern art, in what she calls the “age of relentless artistic mediocrity” and tells stories about the men and artists she has known (including an odd but charming anecdote about Samuel Beckett and his love of German shoes). Irrelevant though her stories may be, and irreverent though she may be, I could have spent hours listening to the rest of her tales.

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The Shape of Metal
By Thomas Kilroy
Directed by Brian Murray
59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street)
September 8-30, Tuesday-Saturday 8:15 pm, Sunday 3:15
Tickets: $21, Ticket Central (212) 279-4200

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Australia Project II: Week 1

Can't travel for the holidays? Embark on a different kind of journey then, into the varying viewpoints of Australian playwrights currently on display for The Australia Project II: Australia Strikes Back. See our world of bright-light-big-city contradictions and self-important conflations reflected in the visions of some talented Australian writers.


Reviewed by Aaron Riccio

Theater should do more than entertain, it should also inform. After all, every monologue is laced with ideas, every character with opinion, and every play with unique perspective. In the strong first week of The Australia Project II: Australia Strikes Back!, four playwrights give us their view of America, a full two hour sample of various styles and wonderful ideas ranging from the pregnant metapauses of Pinter's Explanation to the exuberantly sprayed tangents of The Port. There's New York through the dystopically glazed eyes of avalanche-dwelling Caroline (Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart), and then there's 1892's empire-gripped Australia, seen through the eyes of a loyal lighthouse keeper (The Melancholy Keeper of the Deep, Deep Green). The night goes easily from reverent to fervent, and despite the different tones, the plays do well to complement one another, covering up the occasional shortcoming with general freshness.

Pinter's Explanation, by Ross Mueller, is the somber opening act, a piece pregnant with Pinter's pauses, though far less snappishly playful. The lengthiest of the one-acts on display, it features Michael Szeles and Mary Cross as former lovers, now reunited nineteen months later to work on adapting an Australian play. Unfortunately, while Man has an ulterior motive (he wants to rekindle a relationship he soured with the repressed jealousy of her success), Woman has only monetary reasons for being there, and the emotional core of the play is one-sided and ultimately artificial. The good moments stem from the discussion of theater itself, something that artistic director Mark Armstrong knows how to steer. That conversation is certainly more exciting than Man's recitation of the monologue-within-a-play, and of Woman's angry rant at Man's selfish nature.

Far better is the hit of the night, Anthony Crowley's The Melancholy Keeper of the Deep, Deep Green. Bridgette Dunlap, who often directs adaptations of magical stories for the Ateh Group is well-suited for this tale of an American, Richard (Kevin O'Donnell), who travels to the past to convince Patrick (the excellent Andrew Lawton) to leave the lighthouse dark for an evening. Aside from the undertones of the costs of determinedly "right" American interference, the story focuses on the twinned labor and love of a honest man, a story built with rich, rusted language like "He emptied his lungs through his mouth," that brings to mind Clay MacLeod Chapman's volume of smoke.

Then there's Lally Katz's Goodbye New York, Goodbye Heart, a peppy parable about what life means, when you strip away the false and fancy lights of the city and look for the love underneath. Here, New York is already dead, and it lives on only as a VR haven for suicides. MySpace New York, as it is called, is on the verge of crashing, and we follow Caroline (Nicolle Bradford) as she falls for Thornbury (Ryan King) and his sad Father (Joe Menino), who fears that he cannot save his stubborn son a second time. Katz leaves a lot to the imagination, as does Kara-Lynn Vaeni's direction, but the modern conversations are eerily prescient, and we can almost see the city flickering out.

Week 1 ends with Wesley Enoch's The Port, a one-man show starring Emma Jackson as a frantic traveler who opines directly to the audience on a slew of reasons why she hates (but doesn't really hate) Americans as she packs her port (Australian for suitcase) to travel somewhere else. This cram-packed rant is not only an impressive performance, but the most open of the pieces, shouting out pearls of wisdom about the importance of getting lost in the world (Pinter's Explanation also emphasizes this).

I end this review by emphasizing the same thing: it's necessary that we lose ourselves from time to time in thoughts that are not our own. Without that, we risk eventually becoming lost to the world, and stagnant within ourselves. Week 1 continues through Sunday, and Weeks 2 and 3 run 9/20-9/23 and 9/27-9/30 at chashama.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Flags

Persecution of a family ensues after a distraught father desecrates the American flag that his son's body was wrapped in upon being killed and dismembered for supposedly erecting an Iraqi flag. Structured in the manner of a Greek tragedy, this production is an earnest effort, but the predictability in the script, the wrong venue, and poor staging choices stifles its impact.

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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Flags by Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Martin is an introspective look at a Greek-American family's grief, anger, and derailment after the loss of their son in Iraq. The production and script uses a Greek tragedy format, replete with a chorus and heralds that take the form of journalists providing a blow-by-blow account of the family's traumatic experience. The Desmopoulis family is comprised of real-life husband and wife team Chris Mulkey and Karen Landry as Eddie and Em Desmopoulis, and son Frankie (Ryan Johnston). Eddie is a tough-as-nails Vietnam-vet and garbage man, Em is his dutiful wife clinging to propriety, and Frankie is the underachieving son that is constantly at verbal war with his father. Benny D'Amato (Stephen Mendillo), a friendly but meddling neighbor and Em's backup suitor should she need one, also weighs heavily on the plot.

The family dynamic is immediately established by both the small talk and the strength of the actors. Mulkey and Landry, under Henry Wishcamper's strong direction, clearly have effortless chemistry, one no doubt facilitated by their relationship offstage, and one desperately needed in order to elicit empathy with their plight. While eagerly anticipating their beloved son Carter's return from his deployment in Iraq, they are paid a visit by Major Rasmussen (Ian Bedford) and a Chaplain (Steven Klein) with some heart-wrenching news: Carter was shot and killed in the midst of raising the Iraqi flag as a symbol of the country's return to power. They also learn that Carter, who was trained in armor, was instead on sewage and cleanup detail when he was killed. Already at a boiling and sorrow-crippled point, the family later learns that Carter was also lynched and dismembered for his efforts. The family receive the dirt-caked and blood-stained American flag that Carter's "body" was wrapped in not only as a practical comfort, but as a way to remind them and the audience that he died for flag and country. No sooner does Eddie allow the pain to wash over him with sobs and his wife's embrace does he resurrect it in a new and disturbing way: attack on the flag itself and its symbolism. The tirade begins when Eddie, who rejects the official explanation of a valiant effort gone awry, demands an apology from the President of the United States and then hangs the blood-stained flag upside down in Carter's name and in protest. Annoyance and interest from the community as well as from the press escalates into danger for all of his family members, and ultimately, more tragedy.

The tiny performance space of Theater C at 59E 59th street Theaters is transformed into a two-tiered stage for this production. There is the general space at level with the house seats, and an upper section that one would imagine would be where the lighting and sound board would be located. It isn't. This design is marginally effective in that the upper stage, containing the journalists, is used as a platform much like the gods of Olympus would use to look over the lives of the mortals. Like gods, journalists in this play as well as journalists in general do have deity-like qualities in that the amount of information distributed by them dictates what and how people think and behave. It fails in that the journalists and chorus (played by Quonta Beasley, Kyle Johnston and Ian Bedford) are sitting stooges until it is their time to chime in. Also, there is no camouflage up there when news segments are being taped. Although there is good multimedia use of flat screen TVs for broadcasts, the news clippings look exactly as they are: two or three actors crouched close together against an inauthentic background and looking into the camera. The exterior of the Desmopoulis home is painted on the back wall, but unfortunately, remains a constant despite an interior or exterior scene. Foam core boards with props glued onto them are used to illustrate different scenes, but nothing can distract from the looming house in the background. Because of the space restrictions, some of the offstage actors such as Em in the "kitchen" could be seen, and as a result, destroyed the illusion of her being in another room. Due to the fact that there are minimal costume changes, there is no indication of time elapsing except for a mention in the dialogue. The set and scene changes, to conform to the 90-minute running time, sometimes end too abruptly. A funeral scene should have been altered for this production because of plausibility. Although the inclusion of rain is effectively somber (though cliche) and the sound effects by Graham Johnson are believable enough, when the funeral attendees with the umbrellas walk away, Eddie and Frankie are left standing there dry and unaffected by the rain. This scene would have been just as poignant in sunshine.

Flags is a passionate stab at illustrating grief as experienced through the War in Iraq. It is timely, and makes creative use of the Greek tragedy skeleton. However, with a predictable ending (both by use of the Greek tragedy format and other harbingers) and an inadequate performance space, preoccupation with the technicalities reduces its well-intentioned impact.
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Opens September 15th-30th. 59E59 Theaters59 E. 59th St.New York, NY 10022
Ticket Price: $21; $14.70 membersTicket Information: TicketCentral: 212-279-4200; http://www.ticketcentral.com/.

Monday, September 10, 2007

A New Television Arrives, Finally

A television personified bring vitality and spice to the lives of a disgruntled couple. Although this production is loud and exhausting, there are wonderful performances and the roundabout messages about today's media-saturated culture are poignant and effectively accusatory.

Kate Russell, Tom Pelphrey and Bryan Fenkart

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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

You know you've thought about it. That beloved Game Cube in your hands, or the iPod earbuds that are permanently glued to your ear. You can't live without them, but you're never satisfied because there's always a newer model. Ring a bell? Kevin Mandel explores the television's charming, brain-scrambling and hypnotic prowess in A New Television Arrives, Finally. Based on the very ornate language used to describe the most basic of television programming, it is easy to deduce that Mandel spent a great deal of time pondering the effects of images and radio waves on the frontal lobe. Like an inquisitive child, Mandel takes the TV apart, inspects all of its innards, figures out how they tick and puts it back together again in 90 minutes. And for a good part, his tinkering works.

Guiding Light alumnus Tom Pelphrey stars as the human television set that will perform for anyone who will submit to his instruction. Pelphrey is the American version of the TV, as British actor Victor Villar-Hauser shares the role with him on alternate nights. As the Television, Pelphrey is bombastic, commanding, and infinitely engrossing. He shows considerable range here, adopting various voices and postures to effect clicking channels. His pompadour coif and flashy red suit scream both Americana and Pet Detective. Mandel's dialogue for Television is two-thirds dense, and one-thirds nonsense, but it all comes together to demand a lot of preparation, skill and versatility from Pelphrey that he rises to accommodate.

The saps under his spell are Man (understudy and production manager Ari Vigoda), a mock-sick man that has been holed up in his apartment for 8 days, and Woman (Kate Russell), his 9-5er, unhappy fiance. All too ready to accept his new TV model, Man allows the walking and talking version to come into his home and suck out his brain. What's worse is, like a reverse Adam and Eve, he offers the eye-opening and brain-deadening fruit to his fiance. From there, the couple respond in a hyperactive way to a television that goes from jovial and nurturing to annoying and menacing.

Although the direction by Kevin Kittle elicits strong performances from the whole cast, the pace keeps returning to frenzied and boisterous like a boomerang even though it drags in certain spots. The very little quiet time, used only to demonstrate the devolved connection and passion between the couple, is sorely missed when the noise hits peak level. Although placing the Television set downstage allows the audience to witness the awe on the couple's faces, having the Television face the audience would have been a more effective way to remind them that they too are patrons of this culture monster and should examine their own reliance on gadgets. One cannot help but question why the Television does not have a TV Guide companion to deliver the programming while the Television itself waxes poetic on the importance of “love, love, love.” I am surprised that, due to the excessive attention that he pays to the telephone, Man is not lambasted for his betrayal to the Television. Television does, however, through some temper tantrums. Also, Man applies no logic to removing the Television from his apartment, trying to hoist it out with his might when he simply could have rolled Television out on the rolling table. And even though the audience needs to suspend disbelief about many things for this absurdist comedy, watching the Television drink water is too much to ignore.

Regardless of the imperfections, A New Television Arrives, Finally is clever, funny, and unique. It takes a look at a variety of things that audience members latch on to the TV for, everything from the raunchy (at one point, an elderly couple walked out of the performance when Television became a little too carnal) to the educational. Part cult leader, part mad scientist, and part gigolo, the television is definitely a boob tube in multiple ways. Flip on at your own risk.

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Through September 30th. Theatre 54 at Shetler Studios, 12th Floor, 244 West 54th Street(Between Broadway and 8th Ave)New York, NY 10019 Ticket Price Info: $15.00
Order Tickets By Phone:800-838-3006

A New Television Arrives, Finally

A familiar device goes rogue in this Surrealist comedy.

By Ellen Wernecke


Get the door! It’s our mechanical Savior! A man (Bryan Fenkart) suffering from an indefinable malaise perks up when he hears those magic words, “It’s your new television!” coming from the other side of the door. But instead of meeting a delivery man, it’s a stranger (Tom Pelphrey) in a flashy red suit that changes topics at his own whims and occasionally clams up, unmoved. Still, the man can’t wait to show his new toy to his fiancĂ©e (Kate Russell), who declares, “It’s not what I would have imagined... It’s original!” But does the pricey device really have the couple’s best interests in mind as it cycles through proclamations like “Nonsense is coming!” and “Love Armageddon is coming”? Seems like the longer it’s one, the less sense it makes.

Surely Marshall McLuhan would approve of the concept behind “A New Television Arrives, Finally” (Live from Planet Earth Productions), and while its theoretical proposition falls apart as the play reaches its climax, it’s good to be reminded. Fenkart and Russell make an appealing Everycouple, but the show lives or dies on the shoulders of Pelphrey, who dwarfs their apartment (and the theatre itself) with his broad shoulders and booming voice. Who can complain, relax or make out while his Chesire grin is smiling down?

His erratic nature makes the test-site humans even more frustrated, but instead of blaming him for failure to deliver, they blame themselves. And here’s where “A New Television...” goes a little bit off the rails, because once our Everycouple starts acting with the same mercurial energy as Television, the line between them fades away. This may have been what director Kevin Kittle (and playwright Kevin Mandel) intended, to bring out the hostility of the audience when faced with the destruction of its own logic. The play’s final scene fails to restore order, but it hits the right notes on the way out.

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Through September 30
Note: Victor Villar-Hauser is also taking on the role of Television in alternating performances.
Theatre 54, 244 West 54th St. (12th Fl.)
Tickets, $15, Brownpapertickets.com
For more information, visit the show’s Website

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Purple Hearts

Three sailors await rescue for three weeks in a sunken battleship during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Burgess Clarke's Purple Hearts. Based on real events, this gripping and emotional production boasts raw and original material, a stellar cast, and an appropriately bleak set to convey the anguish of the men and the women who loved them during this harrowing time.






From left to right: Dan Patrick Brady, Kevin T. Collins and Ryan Serhant

photo credit: Elisha Schaefer

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Reviewed by Cindy Pierre

Being transported to the dismal, quiet bottom of the sea is the first thing one experiences during Invisible City Theatre Company's production of Purple Hearts by Burgess Clark. With wonderful sound effects by Peter Wood that mimic the groaning of a ship to Elisha Schaefer's stark, gray set, conjuring the swimming sea life is the next step to being immersed in the aquatic. And from henceforward, one cannot help but be completely engrossed in a situation that terrifies the senses and strikes the core.

Purple Hearts is a look at the three weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor that sailors Spooner (Dan Patrick Brady), Lewis (Ryan Serhant) and Whitman (Kevin T. Collins) spent buried at the bottom of the sea in the battleship, the U.S.S. West Virginia. No emotions, circumstances or contemplations are spared in this production, and as a result, one is left with a realistic portrayal of hope in the face of hopelessness. Interspersed between the sailors' stories are the struggles of the women who are waiting for them to come home. They are Lewis' mother, Ethel (Cecelia Frontero), Whitman's wife, Joanne (Anneka Fagundes), and what can only be described as Spooner's love interest, Cassie (Rebecca White).

At first, the presence of the three women is offputting, as they saunter on and off the same battleship space as their men. It is difficult to visualize them in a military background, rather than a domestic one. However, as the sailors begin to recall the comforts of the lives that are waiting for them above sea level, one can imagine them at least present in spirit, even though they are meant to be there both literally and figuratively.

Clark creates fascinating characters that the outstanding cast, under David Epstein's strong direction, tackle with grit and aplomb. As Spooner, Dan Patrick Brady is infinitely watchable, jerking from one mannerism to the next, and heckling Lewis and Whitman for their sorrows and ideals. Chided as a pissant by Spooner, Whitman is portrayed by Kevin T. Collins as a ranking officer derailed, with a troubled spirit and the crazy eyes of Steve Buscemi. As virgin Lewis, Ryan Serhant demonstrates strength in his youth, and compassion for others in the wake of their peril. Collectively, the women “back home” all represent varying degrees of grief, denial, anger, doubt, love and acceptance with passion and commitment. The period costumes by Jennifer Raskopf take us even further into their world.

A few imperfections to note are the ways in which some of their circumstances are presented visually. A mock rape scene, exciting in action, lacks the proper escalating events to lead to that point. There is smoking onstage, but the reality of their activities stops there. Although there are many peach cans, their only source of food, they are all brought into view already open without a cutting source. It is never referenced that they bathe or use the bathroom, and for a three week span, if that were not the case, there is no mention of declining hygiene.

Although Purple Hearts is set in 1941, the sentiments presented here from both the military and civilian perspectives resound where the War in Iraq is concerned today. Perhaps the ability to apply those circumstances with ours is what gives this piece its extra bite. However, one can do much worse than to have this worthy, substantial play break the comfortable exterior and seep underneath the skin.

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Through September 22nd. Running Time: 1 hr. 55 min. (includes 1 intermission)Wednesday 8:00pm Thursday 8:00pm Friday 8:00pm Saturday 8:00pm Location: Gene Frankel Theatre: 24 Bond Street, NY, NY 10012. Ticket Price Info: $18.00
Order Tickets By Phone:212-352-3101

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The New York International Fringe Festival 2007

Sixteen capsule reviews from the tenth annual New York International Fringe Festival, reviewed by Patrick Lee.

photo: Jonathan Slaff

The best play I saw at this year's Fringe Festival was August Schulenburg's supremely intelligent and entertaining Riding The Bull; it's a remarkable play with a distinctive vision of America. When GL, a God-fearing rodeo clown, takes up with Fat Lyza, the surly no-nonsense woman who's vandalized the town's nativity scene, Riding The Bull plays at first like a homespun losers-in-love comic fable. But when it turns out that Lyza, upon climax, can dependably predict tomorrow's winning bull rider (thanks to God's intervention) and that GL's most faith-based use for the resulting gambling profits is to seek out that falsest of American gods (Elvis), the play reveals a thematic richness and a captivating complexity under its deceptively simple folkloric surface. There's a great deal of humor and sadness in this carefully constructed two-hander: the humor never slips into apathetic snickering at faith, and the sadness is the real thing (read: not the easy, sentimental kind). Thanks in part to perfectly modulated performances from Will Ditterline and Liz Dailey, this production (happily, the festival's Audience Award winner and slated for additional performances as part of the Fringe Encores series) brings the play to indelibly memorable life.

photo: John Scott

I can also recommend another two-hander in the Fringe Encores series: an intimate and often crudely funny hour-long slice of dysfunctional life called bombs in your mouth. As half-siblings Danny and Lily reunite after their father's bizarre funeral service. they chug down beers, arm wrestle like growling animals, and lash out at each other's judgments like overgrown children. In short, they pick up right where they left off six years before. The crazy old man's will favors the one who split town rather than the one who stayed behind to take care of him: there's a lot of resentment to work through. In less skilled hands this sort of thing could deteriorate into a shouting match for actors, but the playwright (Rude Mechanicals member Corey Patrick, who also co-stars with Cass Bugge) has a keen ear for dialogue and he knows that there's affection between the lines of the characters' aggressions; he makes us aware of that even before it's baldly expressed. The play has a convincingly messy rythym: it often seems like the actors are making it up on the spot. Don't let them fool you: it takes a lot of skill to pull that off.

It's a pity that Hail Satan isn't among the shows in the Fringe Encores series; it's a hell of a good show. The first act of Mac Rogers' smart, darkly funny play scores largely as a straight-faced satire of the soullessness of corporate culture, as wishy-washy new employee Tom discovers that all of his ambitious co-workers are part of a small prayer circle of Satan-worshipers. They're so reasonable and welcoming when they say so that it's not long before doubting Tom is sharing at their Sunday meetings and getting used to thinking of the devil when they greet each other with "The lord be with you". While carefully laying the solid groundwork for a tidy chiller (at times it seems like a gender-swapped Rosemary's Baby that preys on the fears of career success and fatherhood rather than marriage and motherhood) Rogers plays with our notions of religious tolerance and of our cultural acceptance of selfishness: this is clever, pitchfork-funny stuff. Although the suspenseful second act - more plot-driven, more serious in tone, and focused more on family than on corporate dynamics - includes a plot twist that is thematically justified but not adequately prepared for dramatically, the play is always bold and effective both as swift, engaging entertainment and as needling social comment.


The Commission caught me by surprise: after the first scene I was sure I knew where it was going (political intrigue) and then it went somewhere else (sexual warfare) and then somewhere else again. That's not to say that Stephen Fechter's 95 minute one-act is aimless; to the contrary, it's sharp and lean and purposeful as the scenes play out in reverse chronological order. (That's the most benign thing I can reveal to indicate the drama's rigor and intelligence without spoiling too much.) Set in an unnamed country (Yugoslavia?) during and after a brutal civil war in which many civilian women were raped and murdered, the play begins with what seems like the chance meeting between two women: an American who is entangled extramaritally with a prosecutor of war crimes, and a young student who fears that her fiance, a solider, is dead. The violence that we see on stage is mostly of the interpersonal kind, including an extended mostly nude post-sex scene between the older couple that is harrowing in its frankness, as their seemingly warm intimacy gives way to brutality and humiliation. Although this play is often more engaging intellectually than emotionally, it nonetheless packs a sucker punch that lingers long after it concludes.


Like his taut and sexually explicit Extra Virgin playwright Howard Walters' intense and edgy one-act Chaser has two gay men literally and figuratively going at it. This one is sharper and even more provocative, an engrossing drama in which confident, quick-thinking Val (Wil Petre) has a secret agenda while aggressively putting the moves on gun-shy Dominick (Jake Alexander). It's immediately clear that there's more to the tension in the air than the usual first-date nerves: even when the two are making small talk and inching toward each other on Dominick's futon couch (the only set piece on an otherwise black stage) we're waiting for a shoe to drop. It does when Val's intentions are clear. The rest of the 50-minute play is a sometimes harrowingly frank battle of wills between the two men; apart from a few stray didactic moments, it's dramatic dynamite. Both actors are excellent and well-matched, bringing a palpable sense of emotional and sexual danger to even their most benign interplay. Shaun Peknic's no-nonsense direction ably serves the play's sobering, clear-eyed themes.

photo: Ian Jackson

The best musical I saw at this year's Fringe Festival featured two actors playing white gay rappers who go by the names T-Bag and Feminem. But BASH'd: A Gay Rap Opera isn't the parody that its come-on might lead you to expect; it's exciting, trenchant musical theatre and boundlessly invigorating entertainment. Using hip-hop's naked aggression and its uncompromisingly explicit language, the all-rapped show is both a convincing, affecting gay love story and an unapologetic in-your-face rallying call for equal rights. It's also the best case I have ever seen made for the stage-worthiness of this genre of music: the dope beats and rhymes in BASH'd are always in service of storytelling. So what if there are a few gay-coming-of-age cliches and who cares that the message, as befits rap music, is ultimately blunt? That matters not at all, thanks to the freshness and the vitality of the presentation.


Mark Baratelli's Improv Cabaret slapped a huge, silly smile on my face for its forty-five minutes. With no planning and no suggestions from the audience, quick-thinking Baratelli not only makes up the cheesy imitation American-songbook numbers on the spot but also the faux-confessional banter in between: the result is a light, affectionate send-up of the genre's illusion of emotional intimacy between performer and audience. The joke is that the intimacy here is fake but he delivers it with the portent and the heightened emotional pitch of the real thing: at the performance I saw, his increasingly ludicrous story about a childhood spent with corn husks for friends segued into a ridiculous uplifting anthem about finding one's way home to the corn. I like Mark Baratelli's corn.


In Kiss And Make Up, an often zippy but ultimately uneven musical which takes place at a nerve-rattled community theatre, a variety of farcical mishaps force the leading man to also play the leading lady on (of course) opening night, while his co-stars scramble about either to assist or to sabotage him. The show takes too long to get going - the first act is slow setting things up, and too many of the musical numbers throughout bring the action dangerously to a standstill when what's essential for farce is monentum - but once we're in the show-within-the-show (which, shrewdly, is also a farce) the book is often clever and lively. The show's biggest problem, besides that three times as many moments are musicalized than need be, is a persistent one with farce and concerns the specific brand of exaggerated performance style that it asks of an actor. Frankly, you either got it or you ain't. Only half of this ensemble has got it.

In "VH1 Behind The Music" style, Show Choir: The Musical recounts the rise and fall of a fictional superstar show choir (think big smiles, sequined uniforms and the blandest kind of geeky choir pop) who for a time take the international music scene by storm. That's a joke to anyone who has even the slightest awareness of what drives pop music, but this show is a mockumentary only by dint of it being make-believe; it isn't shaped to be spoof, nor satire, nor camp. It's depressingly earnest and unimaginative - we're meant to go along with the conceit, and watch as one band-breaking-up cliche plays out after another: fame goes to the choir director's head and he hogs the spotlight, one choir girl gets drunk and becomes fodder for the gutter press, the songwriter starts moonlighting elsewhere, and so on. There is nothing at stake in this straight-faced fantasy - the documentary format doesn't even invite us to root for the choir to be a success, since that's a given at the start - and the show exists in a vacuum, not the least bit interested in commenting on real-life pop culture at all. It's an excuse for sequins and songs. That said, the sequins are better than the songs.

Bixby Elliot's PN1923.45 LS01 Volume 2 [The Book Play] needs work; it only occasionally demonstrates how funny and touching it could be after some sleeves are rolled back up. The play has an unusual structure, alternating between the romantic interests of a gay man in 1981 and of a bookish woman in 1951 (the connecting tissue is that each works as the rare-books librarian in the same sub-basement, thirty years apart) but the bifurcation doesn't pay any comic dividends until near the end of the play. (The scene where it does pay, however, hits the jackpot.) More seriously idling the play too long in neutral is yet another set of alternated scenes (monologues, actually) in which Everett Quinton, as a gay activist, holds forth in queer manifesto mode. I see the thematic importance of this, but the monologues don't build from one to another: generally, once you've seen the first one you've seen them all. Additionally, the male librarian's story becomes unclear at the eleventh hour - I thought I understood the specifics of his issues with his boyfriend, and then they went for another round of fighting that made me not like or understand either of them. And yet, with all that said, it is clear that there is a worthwhile, potentially moving play here struggling to make itself known.

For the most (and best) part, Tom Johnson's play Madonna And Child And Other Divas earnestly concerns an evangelical Christian who fights against his homosexual temptations. We see him struggling over the course of his adult life: driven from a Baptist college in the mid-'50s under threat of being exposed as a sodomite, courting and marrying a young woman some years later who believes it is her mission from God to save him from his sinful desires, and most incredibly (because this is based on a true story) undergoing an exorcism to rid him of the "homosexual demon" after a gay affair is uncovered. Johnson mostly steers clear of satirizing these characters - much of the play paints a serious and realistic picture of a gay man facing prejudice and intolerance from well-meaning "love the sinner but hate the sin" people. Apart from the curious touch of having stacks of Bibles substitute for meals or telephones (we hardly need *that* to get the omnipresence of Scripture in this world) this much of the play is effective and memorable. What doesn't work so well is the framing device which runs through the play: one of its aims is to provide analogous, self-loathing action in current times, but it's too underdeveloped to make that point. It becomes a distraction from an otherwise straightforward play.

With more ambition than skill, a good deal of A Mikvah attempts a non-linear collage that illustrates its main character's mental and emotional distress on the occasion of a major life crisis. Characters from past and present simultaneously speak (too often in generalities and platitudes) to him and to each other as if in a fragmented dream: dialogue is repeated elliptically, or said in unison, or reduced to phrases that overlap one another. The text is problematic - this heavy-handed mood-making persists long after we're ready for specificity and clarity, and then there's an out-of-nowhere non-fictional supporting character (grown-up JTT, the former child star of Home Improvement) whose sassy brand of world-weary seems to be from a totally different play. Besides some less-than-credible acting from the ensemble (Max Jenkins, as JTT, is an exception) the production suffers from a lack of attention to detail. The highly theatrical style that is attempted here depends very much on the strength of its imagery, and it's sloppy to assign a profound spiritual meaning to water, for example, and then have it carried out on stage in what looks like a plastic storage bin from The Container Store.

photo: Jim Baldassare

An uneasy mix of farcical comedy and cynical relationship drama, ...Double Vision works best when its characters are in full-on comic neurotic mode; it falters when it tries to go deeper than a sitcom. The story involves a half dozen single New Yorkers (three men who share an apartment, and three women who are involved with them in one way or another) but it noticeably lacks big city flavor - it's no more urban than an episode of Friends. One guy can't muster up the courage to tell his girlfriend to stay with him rather than take that new job out in California, another only hooks up with married women, another breaks away from the throes of a passion with a French girl half his age to get a taste of someone else. The theme of men resisting commitment is in here somewhere, but the play's individual moments stay isolated and don't accumulate emotionally or thematically; by the end, when one of the guys wanders around the stage naked, there's every indication that we're meant to find his actions sobering and serious, but the jokey, snickering play hasn't earned that.

photo: George Rand

Written (by Adam Szymkowicz) to show its star Susan Louise O'Connor to neurotic-adorable advantage (on that score, it mostly succeeds) the hour-long Susan Gets Some Play is set in motion when one of Susan's friends gets the idea to pretend to produce a play in order to hold bogus auditions: how else will dating-discouraged Susan meet guys? The slight, brief comedy seems intended as a silly, goofy lark, but even a lark has to have rules and this one, by design, keeps changing them up. Guys seated in the audience take the stage to audition following one that entered from the wings: the playfulness here has more to do with mild goofing on theatrical rules than on Susan's love problems. Although thick with theatre in-jokes and aggressive fourth-wall breakage, the play's mild flavor of zany makes it feel more like a television sitcom than anything else. Susan, previously and self-effacingly oblivious to interest from guys right under her nose, wanders into the audience at the play's climax to deliver an earnest monologue promising to change her ways and her attitude. This personal growth moment is unearned and out of nowhere: we didn't see Susan do any work.


The cute, exactly-campy-enough Scout's Honor, comprised of a sketch about the Boy Scouts (Snipe Hunt) and a longer and even funnier one about the Girls Scouts (Becky's Beaver), should get a special merit badge for its warmth: it aims to tickle with a light hand and it succeeds. The talented adult cast plays, with just an exception or two, kids of scouting age - the same actors are in both stories with changed-up genders when needed - and happily everyone has been led down the same trail where no one goes too far with the kid-traits. Each story centers comically on a Scout who can't fit in: in the first, it's a wussy gayboy who asks at campfire sing-a-long if anyone knows anything from Pippin, and in the second, it's a nerdgirl who can't get with the big beaver-hunting program. It's all good, not-exactly-clean fun, in which each of the able and amiable actors gets to strut his or her funny stuff front and center in at least one role.

Sketch comedy shows are almost always hit and miss. Animals has two uneven but perfectly amiable skits at the top of the first act, and after that it's one winner after another, as three talented and very likeable performers (Erin Mortensen, Michael Hirstreet, and Ryan O'Nan, also the playwright) act out scenes that touch on the overarching idea of humans vs. animals. It has the feeling of a themed episode of Saturday Night Live, except it's often brainier than that show's been in a while and the skits don't peter out in exhaustion - they build and pay off. The scenes in the first act are organized around the action in a pig-themed diner in New Jersey and follow a nifty comic arc: we're first with the pig-costumed wait staff who feel oppressed by the customers, then with the customers who are attacked by birds, then with the row of birds above the customers, and so on. The longer, more developed skits in the second act all touch on animal mythology. Even if they were not all terrific and terrificly clever (they are) the scenes of two gay unicorns, driven to desperate action when banned from Noah's Ark because they can't sexually reproduce, would alone make the show worth catching. And that's besides the welcome speech that Noah's wife gives to all the assembled animals, where she philosophizes that any animal she was able to capture is surely not the brightest example of the species. Animals is a hoot.