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.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

23 Coins

23 Coins is a provocative and intense play about the lies blind faith allows - but the fire and brimstone themes are no easy fit for the cheery song and dance structure. Come with an open-mind, and be prepared to leave unsettled. Just don't expect to be humming any tunes on your way out.

Isaac Thigpen (played by Oliver Conant) and Gin Walker (played by Rebecca Lee Lerman) practice what they’ll preach in 23 Coins.

Reviewed by Cait Weiss

Take Dora the Explorer, place her in the Baptist south, introduce an evil pastor. Add music.

23 Coins is a bizarre, provocative and deeply unsettling new musical about religious corruption and mutated genomes. As you may guess, this is an ambitious show. The title refers to the idea that each of the 23 genes in our DNA is decided by the flip of a coin; it’s a 50-50 chance whether we inherit the chromosome from our mother or our father, and that chance can dramatically alter our entire life and the lives of those around us.

Set in New Orleans during Katrina (this is never explicitly stated, but we seem in the 21st century and one character is killed in a storm’s flood), the show takes an unflinching approach to some very strong themes. We witness an admitted homosexual being sodomized by the preacher’s baton. We watch our preacher, Isaac Thigpen (compellingly played with both charisma and sadism by Oliver Conant) copulate with a clergyman’s disabled wife (played by Katie Labahn). We see our here-to-fore moral compass, Magic Parks (played by a deeply likeable Peter Quinones), let a woman die in the storm. These scenes are presenting without coddling and, often, without much warning. This is a rough world, and as the audience, we are compelled to witness this brutality. It is eye opening, but the view’s painful. Some things we’d rather not see.

We’re along for the ride, though, thanks to playwright and composer Mark Abrahams. He knows this isn’t the easiest material to digest, and so he sprinkles oddly gleeful songs throughout the action. Most songs function like the music on a Nikelodean kids’ show – introducing characters, blooming into ridiculous dance parties, and then, poof, disappearing back the real action at hand. While the lyrics can be compelling and evocative, the melodies are simplistic and uninteresting – and only the best singers in the cast even begin to justify the inclusion of music in this play. Rebecca Lee Lerman, playing the lead child, Gin Walker, has a voice that could stop any show – unfortunately, the song stopped the show first, grinding the action, character development, and audience engagement to a dead halt.

Still, 23 Coins is a show worth seeing. The musical numbers are few and far between, thank goodness, and the unsung dialogue is very strong. Much to its merit, 23 Coins takes a tired cliché (the old corrupted religious hypocrite leads his flock astray) and infuses the topic with such specific evil that the concept has fresh blood. For better or for worse, as we sit passively absorbing this action, watching trusted characters make questionable decisions and sing emotionally misplaced songs, that blood nearly ends up on our hands.

Mark Abrahams and directors Stephanie Barton-Farcas and Michelle Kuchuk sense our growing anxiety – as the end of the show approaches, the audience and the characters alike are asking, “How can this possibly end up alright?” Sadly, the answer lies in some extreme deus ex machina tricks. It turns out Gin Walker, at 9, knows all the secrets. It turns out she has contacts in universities working with DNA and genome therapy. It turns out the scientist ran a genetic test from the mother’s strand of hair. It turns out she doesn’t have the disease after all. It turns out the mother has been suffering from pseudo-seizures all along. It turns out the preacher is an extortionist caught – just at the right minute – by the law. It all turns out all right in the end. Abrahams seems to be saying, “See guys! This musical can too have a happy ending!”

Ridiculous, impossible, but better than having to believe that happiness itself is a coin toss. Better than having to believe that the adorable Gin Walker will be orphaned, abused and forgotten. Better than having to believe that homophobia, brutality, exploitation, and, yes, genetically inherited diseases not only exist but also thrive. 23 Coins takes the bad with the good – but I do wish the good were as full-blooded, as believable, and as compelling, as the bad. Without the unbelievable plot twists that end this otherwise insightful and compelling musical, the odds wouldn’t look too good for little Gin Walker. Dora the Explorer, though, might still do okay.


23 Coins (2½ hours; 1 intermission)

The Spoon Theater, 38 West 28 Street, 5 Floor

Tickets [ or 866-811-4111]

Performances [through 10/25]: Wed-Sat at 8pm; Sun at 2:30pm

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