Of late, I've become a big fan of 59E59 Theaters; not only do they produce a series of festivals that bring, amongst other things, tastes of off-Broadway British fare and the Edinburgh Fringe, along with consistently varied programming in their two studio spaces (theater B and C) and the solid offerings of the main Primary Stages space. (Not to mention their affordable pricing.) This month, the two smaller stages offer contradictory nights of entertainment: the first, Cut the Chase is vaudeville for kids, the second, The City That Cried Wolf, is a grown-up nursery tale. Both are derivative of very specific genres, but with Cut to the Chase, the enthusiastic execution makes the work seem fresh, and although The City That Cried Wolf mugs too much for the Jasper Fforde crowd, its nonstop punning is funny -- almost exasperatingly so.
With Cut to the Chase, the only point where the audience actually wants the show to cut to the action is in director Mark Lonergan's introduction, a short introduction about their influences (Keaton and Chaplin) and their target audience (the young, and the young at heart). Honestly, that's the only drag of the performance. Seconds later, hyperactive Dilly (Laura Dillman), clad in a bellhop's costume and armed with an infectious laugh, silently introduces the rest of the cast: Dobson (Mike Dobson), the dour drummer; The Great Jeske (Joel Jeske), the director; Julietta Massina (Juliet Jeske), the singing diva; Kasper (Ryan Kasprzak), the lovable scamp; Little Angela (Andrea Kehler), the annoying tease; and Roland Derek (Derek Roland), the lanky illusionist. This is all done in a matter of minutes, using no more than the most basic movements, a series of three farcically placed doors, and a few sliding curtains, and with the parts well established, the company breaks into a series of "acts," all of which revolve around the constantly thwarted romance of Dilly and Kasper.
The camaraderie and smooth transitions speak to the developmental technique of the company (which fleshed out Mr. Jeske's ideas with their own unique tricks), and to the strong hand of Mr. Lonergan, who succeeds at entertaining both the young and young at heart. In little over an hour, we're treated to a tap-triggered light show, a balloon-drumming exhibition, an amusing series of riffs on a piano, a magic act, several songs (ultimately parodies of the old 30s style), and quick-change choreography. It's good natured, genuinely funny, and a great time.
On the other hand, The City That Cried Wolf tries entirely too hard, and that's what ultimately brings down Brooks Reeve's hysterically scripted (if leaden) play. The show is a hard-boiled look at the death of Mayor Dumpty, as investigated by the private eye (or B.), Mr. Jack B. Nimble at the behest of the police force's golden egg, Mother Goose. If those puns delight you, you're in for a treat: Reeve's agglomerate of nursery tales are a riot, and the dirtier they get, the funnier. For instance, Jack's suspect, Little Bo Peep works at a certain sort of "peep" show -- she's a dancer at the Hey Diddle Diddle, where you might get solicited for Mrs. Muffet's "toffets" (and might even accept if you've had one too many hickory dickory daiquiris).
Unfortunately, the play finds a static direction from Dan Barnes and Leta Tremblay, who seem more interested in sight gags (Granny's cane is the biggest shotgun I've ever seen, and Little Bunny Foo Foo's appearance as a deranged, mallet-wielding psychopath is an indelible moment in the theater) than in structure. Additionally, while the leads are at least playing solid characters -- Adam La Faci's nonchalant narration as detective, Chloe Demrovsky's sultry flocking, and Michelle Concha's serious (yet surprisingly deft) commanding officer -- the other four actors get lost in the roughly ten roles they each play. Each one gets the point across -- for instance, Rebecca Jones plays a testy waitress named Mary Mary, and Mat Bussler clucks enough to remind us that he's Plucky Lucky in this scene -- but they do so with the minimum of effort, underplaying what is already a ridiculous concept.
The City That Cried Wolf never gets a silly enough performance to justify the story; it could take a cue from Cut to the Chase, whose silly plot needs no justification, just performance.