Sunday, July 27, 2008

Midtown International Theatre Festival: Three Plays

In Shaun Gunning's Writer's Block, a playwright trying to meet the expectations (and deadlines) of his latest work struggles to turn his love-hate relationship with his agent into a means of inspiration. Taking a different approach, Elisa Abatsis's Daguerreotypes stretches a metaphor about the halation of this ancient photographic technique into a play about transitory relationships and the need to let go of the past. Most daringly, Mary Stewart-David and Clive Chang attempt to revive Phileas Fogg's journey as a musical comedy set in 2011 (Eighty-1). These shows may seem to have nothing in common, but they're all selections of this year's Midtown International Theatre Festival (MITF). It's a random sampling, and an uneven bunch at that, but to quote one of Ms. Abatsis's characters, "DILLIGAFF" (Do I Look Like I Give A Flying Fuck)? And, by means of an answer, here's the rundown on some highs and lows, and the reason why it hardly matters.

In the best of the three plays, Mr. Gunning plays what very well may be himself--Daniel--a playwright tragically blocked by his ex-fiancee's sudden abandonment of him . . . for his brother. It's enough to drive anyone to drink one's deadlines away, even as the repo men take everything but an empty bookcase, and as the bathrobe starts to musk up around you. As he's egged on by his agent, Paula (Kate Dulcich), he stumbles his way through a series of comic failures, from a Shepard-like adaptation of his own life--in which Jack (Jack Marshall) loses his fiancee to his meth-addict brother, Gary (Steve Orlikowski)--to a sequel to a sophomoric gangster comedy, "Chicago, 1923," which playfully packs more fish-related puns into a ten-minute gag than a whole can of sardines (sans the stink). The play also spoofs the "murder mystery" play, but thankfully, the jokes aren't at anyone's expense, for they tie together into a classic showdown between a writer and his own creations, with a little romance thrown in for resolution.

Next up, Eighty-1, or "Around Around the World in 80 Days in 80 Minutes." Phileas Fogg IV (Daniel Lincoln) is forced to validate his great-grandfather's record by recreating the journey (that's by rail and by boat, for you Verne purists). He's joined, of course, by the descendants of that trip, JP Passepartout (Brayden Hade) and journalist "Fixey" Fix (Nicole Weiss), and yes, an Indian princess (Jen Anaya) appears. The show is in extremely good fun, but it speeds through so much that it fails to develop much character, and the songs--all piano-based--suffer from not having the strength of personality behind the words. The haste also sacrifices adventure for a shallow love story: not always a bad thing, but without the exotic danger there's a lack of obstacles and an excess of exposition. Developmentally, though, Eighty-1 is in great shape: when's the last time you saw a show whose only problem was learning how to slow down?

Unfortunately, Daguerreotypes seems as if it's frozen in time: the bookending scenes between Gemma (Storm Garner) and her beloved art teacher, Norman (Doug Rossi), were taken without the flash on, and the lack of chemistry (or even reason for those scenes) muddies the rest of the picture. There just aren't any circumstances: Cece (Jessica Morris), who is pregnant with a brain-dead baby, is unable to explain why she's come to a studio that specializes in peaceful photographs of dead babies and Henry (Alfred Gingold), who runs the studio, isn't able to express his passion for this sort of photography or for the love of his life, the country gal Darcy (Lynn Spencer). Consequently, the drama often seems slower than the lengthy (but musical) scene changes. Chase (Jared Morgenstern) is the one character she nails, an angsty employee of Henry's: of all the characters, he speaks without thinking--and that leaves him free to simply be.

And yet, I'm always drawn to these festivals. Regardless of flaws, there's an earnestness in the work, some sense of purity that just needs to be worked out in front of a live, receptive, audience. Chances are, most of these shows won't move on (at least, not without heavy revisions). But at the same time, you haven't heard the last of these crews.

For a list of the 60 shows, the venues, and the performance dates, go to the MITF website, here.

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