Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Noon Day Sun

Photo/Rebecca Woodman Taylor

It's not quite high noon over at Theater Row, but Noon Day Sun is a very nice production of a race-driven drama that starts by observing the costs of passing for white (or not), by paralleling the lives of two former lovers, but then broadens the perspective to point out that, hey, don't we all pass for one thing or another? And doesn't that just make us all a little bit more the same?

[Reviewed for Time Out New York]

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Steven Hall's "The Raw Shark Texts"

Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts opens in the style of Philip K. Dick's Paycheck, with a near dead man trying to save his own life by following the directions of his former self, Eric Sanderson the First. Except that the thing chasing him, a Ludovician word shark (or rather, the idea of one), belongs more to the metafictional world of Haruki Murakami (yes, there's a cat in this novel), as does the underlying tale of a lost love. Any good story is built on solid foundations and good ideas, and Hall's borrowed liberally from the sturdiest of authors, culling bits of solipsism from Paul Auster and highbrow adventure from David Mitchell. There's plenty of pop culture, too, and the climax can only be described as Jaws meets Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. Above all, there are the staples of modern thrillers: a constant array of cryptographic puzzles and one long extended chase scene, which manages to avoid being repetitive on grounds of sheer inventiveness.

"Bang -- another hit directly behind and under me, much harder, like a slow-motion car crash and the back end of the sofa thrown up and coming toppling forward, sending me sprawling off into empty space and then the carpet and the floor came up at me and it -- broke. The idea of the floor, the carpet, the concept, feel, shape of the words in my head all broke apart on impact with a splash of sensations and textures and pattern memories and letters and phonetic sounds spraying out from my splashdown. I went under, deep, carried by the force of my fall and without the thought or image or any recollection of oxygen or breathing at all."
Admittedly, it gets harder for Hall to make potent observations about how minute and grain-like our petty signs and signifiers are, in light of it all. The first half of the book seems crammed full of insight ("Every single cell in the human body replaces itself over a period of seven years. That means there's not even the smallest part of you now that was part of you seven years ago"), whereas the second half is more like a Zen action novel, with our memoryless hero exploring the underbelly of un-space, pursuing leads with shadowy men like Nobody, and sucked into the schemes of people like Scout and Trey Fidorious, who are trying hard to defeat a collective consciousness named Mycroft Ward. And yet, it all glides smoothly over this ocean of words, a world which thinks of memes as single-celled organisms of thought, ones which can gradually accumulate into larger creatures, like the luxophage, a parasitic idea lamprey that eats away at one's ability to think quickly or logically.

The Raw Shark Texts is, essentially, a symbiont, a complex organism that is living on, beneficially, within the reader, sparking the mind with a new, albeit fantastical, way to view the world. Nibble by nibble, the breadcrumb memories of this story will reel you in, until you're caught, hook, line, and sinker, racing through the words to their most satisfying conclusion.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Fringe 2008: Wrap-Up

I can't hype what I haven't seen, but I will say that tickets and information for the Fringe Encores series has just gone live, right here.

I'll be trying to take in Blanche Survives Katrina in a FEMA Trailer Named Desire, and Krapp, 39, both of which I missed the first time through, but I also recommend heading out to The Boy in the Basement and There Will Come Soft Rains. I also think that while it still needs some work, you can either catch The Redheaded Man now, or when it's inevitably mounted again.

Curiously, none of the plays that won the "outstanding" festival awards are coming back for encores, whereas a lot of the solo shows and "big names" (like Perez Hilton Saves The Universe) are. I understand the goal's to sell tickets, and these may be the most commercially feasible (bigger draws, lower overheads), but I think it says something about how meaningless awards really are. People don't care about quality--at least, not what critics define as quality (and that's a big point)--so much as they do about access, entertainment, and relevance, which in the America of today translates to pop-cultural praise.

[Click through to see what and who the official judges deemed the big Fringe winners.]

Outstanding Play:
The Umbrella Plays
Sailor Man
Too Much Memory

Outstanding Musical:
China - The Whole Enchilada
Perez Hilton Saves the Universe...

Outstanding Playwrighting:
Montserrat Mendez -Thoroughly Stupid Things...
Paul Cohen - Mourn the Living Hector
Suzie Miller - Reasonable Doubt
Halley Bondy - The Redheaded Man

Outstanding Music & Lyrics:
Julie Nichols, Lames Asmus & Andrew Hobgood - Love is Dead

Outstanding Solo Show:
Krapp, 39
Blanche Survives Hurricane Katrina...

Outstanding Direction:
Bill Oliver -The Alice Complex
Heather Cohen - Other Bodies
Nell Balaban - The Boy in the Basement
Jon Levin - There Will Come Soft Rains

Outstanding Costume Design:
Gem! A Truly Outrageous Parody! - Angela Harner
The Fabulous Kane Sisters... - Jennifer Kirschman
Charlie LaGreca - The Gargoyle Garden

Outstanding Lighting Design:
Teresa Hull - The Permanent Night

Outstanding Actor:
Molly Bell - Becoming Britney
Hogan Gorman - Hot Cripple
Movin Melvin Brown - A Man, A Magic, A Music
Deborah Weston - See How Beautiful I Am
Will Manning - Choke City & Revolution on the Roof

Outstanding Ensemble:
Keep Your Eyes Open
Gem! A Truly Outrageous Parody!
Paper Dolls

Outstanding Set Design:
Tania Bijlani - The Alice Complex

Outstanding Choreography:
Lizzie Leopold - Green Eyes

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Fringe: Mare Cognitum

Theater of the Expendable drew me to this show with its rampant cry for escapism: given the sorry state of affairs in the world today, fuck it, let's go to the moon indeed. But just like their last show, Cherry Docs, the blatant dialogue gives rise to something more tender underneath, and Mare Cognitum manages to blast off above the calamity and commotion. David McGee finds a nice contrast in setting the all-too natural dialogue of excitable Lena (Devon Caraway), shyly intelligent Jeff (Kyle Walters), and contemplatively serious Thomas (Justin Howard), against their hopeful thought experiment, and director Jesse Edward Rosbrow uses long pauses and full lighting shifts to refocus moments, allowing him first to move the action into the past (Walters slyly doubles as a snobby political activist in Lena's world and as an interviewer/confessor in Thomas's self-deceptive routine) and then into a more optimistic apogee. The importance of what these characters are saying (beyond the cheap jokes about Pluto's demotion and Quantum Leap's "god"), help to elevate their conversation beyond sitcom fodder: the thoughts become, in essence, the dramatic hook. It's a clever solution, given that our generation's apathy is defined by the lack of an obstacle, and the show, despite being one ending too long, is a creative change of pace. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "The dark side of the moon" and 5 being "No other words: just fly me to the moon," Mare Cognitum gets a 3.5.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Fringe: The Alice Complex

Photo/Nelson Hancock

Peter Barr Nickowitz's The Alice Complex suffers from only one thing: it's a little too complex for the modest little story he's crammed into an hour. It hardly matters, as Bill Oliver's expert direction and the perfect performances of Lisa Banes and Xanthe Elbrick make this one of the slickest productions of the entire Fringe Festival '08. Here's an example of the abundant cleverness: Elbrick plays Quinn, an actress who is about to star in her theater professor Margo's new play, which is about a young girl named Rebecca (Elbrick) who, in order to work out her love/hate relationship with her idealized feminist teacher, Sally (Banes), takes her hostage. Along the way, Elbrick plays a younger version of Sally, and Banes plays an older versino of Rebecca, touching on a lot of nuances and shades, but forgoing the need to stress anything deeper in these relationships for surfacey lines ("I hate beginnings," says Quinn; "That's because you haven't seen enough endings," replies Margo) and melodramatic mania (as when Rebecca pretends to go off the deep end, hoping to wake up the Sally she is in love with). It's a brilliant showcase, though, and if the overall story winds up a little muddied, the individual choices and chemistry between these two women are terrific. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "A, my name is Awful" 5 being "I'd jump down this rabbit hole again," The Alice Complex gets a 4.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Fringe: The Gargoyle Garden

Photo/R. Bratspies

It's hard to critique a children's musical--after all, I'm not the target audience--but I will say that Jeff LaGreca's latest work is the opposite of his a capella show, Minimum Wage. That works to his advantage, since kids are more likely to tune in for the killer plot than musicality, so my stovepipe hat comes off to The Gargoyle Garden. Crossing between Mary Poppins and Harry Potter, the show follows the eccentric Edgar Allen Densmore (Patrick Henney) as he tries to evade the evil Brother Keyes (John C. Taylor) long enough to befriend Annabel Lee (Emily Bordonaro); the easily digestible moral is that it's alright to be different. With the help of the chimney-sweeping narrator (talented Allan Gillespie) and a few friendly gargoyles (headlined by Brian DePetris), the show plays like a youthful Edward Scissorhands, and although at one point it practically steals the music to Sondheim's "You Are Not Alone," the show is sincere enough at heart that such similarities comes across more as homage than plagiarism. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Not abnormal but abysmal," and 5 being "Mysterious and spooky, and all together ooky," The Gargoyle Garden gets a 3.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Fringe: Big Beat/Back Flow

Photo/Makoto Takeuchi

In the late 1970s, Walter Thompson wanted to find a way to conduct what were essentially jam sessions, and invented a language that would allow him to spontaneously compose a piece, drawing on the energies of any artist around him, be they dancers, musicians, actors, and so on. This technique, known as soundpainting, is the spine of Big Beat/Back Flow, but the visceral effect is like watching Pollock do theater. Evan Mazunik, a James Lipton-like soundpainter, eventually manages to build a lyrical jazz structure out of the chaos (kudos to Eric John Eigner's steady percussion), and that's impressive--to a degree--but the evening is meant for those who get their kicks freebasing to jam bands and Brian Eno. On the whole, the sound of Josh Sinton laughing through his saxophone or Ryan Kotler squeaking two bass bows together is slightly more entertaining and musical than nails on a chalkboard. There's a method to the madness--behold the elegant beauty of chaos--but that doesn't make it any less mad. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "More like backwash than back flow" and 5 being "A picture's worth a thousand notes," Big Beat/Back Flow gets a 1.5.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Elizabeth Rex

Photo/Erica Parise

I'm a fan of bantering characters, especially charismatic ones, which makes Michael DiGioia's Ned Lowenscroft one of the things worth seeing in Elizabeth Rex. He's paired with a talented tyrant, Stephanie Barton-Farcas, and like their relationship, some of Timothy Findley's play is unbalanced, but it's almost always entertaining.

[Reviewed for Time Out New York]

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fringe: The Deciders

Photo/Israel, N.E. Photo & Design

With all the backhanded insults directed at the current administration, it's ironic that The Deciders, a satirical rock musical of Bush's plan to reinstate Saddam so as to stabilize Iraq and secure his legacy as a peacemaker, most deserves a backhanded compliment: this is pretty good for the Fringe. However, while Cindy Sheehan (Amber Carson) and Condi (Carla Euphrates Kelly) have terrific voices and Dubya (Erik Hogan) has the self-deprecating swagger down, the plot comes across more as a parody of an already existing parody, and, as if the winks to the audience about the "Fringe benefits" weren't bad enough, bogs down the actual message with a sub-story that features Saddam's desire to mount a musical called "Saddamn." The actual plot is tragic and familiar enough, and if Mitch Kess focuses more on songs like "Safer, Stronger" (in which Cheney feeds lines to a deceived and teary Condi) or the protest anthem "Free" and less on building Saddam up as a misunderstood Elvis ("Blues of Babylon"), this show could have some serious legs. (Getting better, less electronic instruments would help the music from being so lounge-y.) Note to the government, in re: The Deciders: there's your innovation. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Worse than the last eight years of Bush," and 5 being "Yes, we most certainly can," The Deciders gets a 2.5.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Fringe: Kansas City or Along the Way

Photo/Seth Duerr

Although it's hard to tell that the interlaced monologues in Robert Attenweiler's Kansas City or Along the Way are taking place in the past and future before meeting up in the play's present time of the 1930s, this is an excellent character piece. Louise (Rebecca Benhayon) narrates her half from a sense of panic for her husband left for Kansas, kids in tow, and the jaws of her dreary town snapped down on her. Joseph (Adam Groves) gets the more active storytelling, for he's a traveling guitarist trying to make good, as a line cook, as a father, as whatever it takes to improve the future. Attenweiler's a talented writer, but he deals best with action, so the final scene between the two is filled with beautiful moments (Louise's knowing bribes, Joseph's weary approval, and the metaphorical observation that when you're using newspaper for a pillow, the more bad news there is, the better one sleeps). Joe Stipek evokes a desolate atmosphere with just a few boxes and shifts in lighting, and this two-hander is very well along on its way. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "I'd rather watch tumbleweeds" and 5 being "A story I don't mind getting lost in," Kansas City or Along the Way gets a 3.5.

Fringe: There Will Come Soft Rains

Photo/Marielle Solan

Whether you're familiar with the three science-fiction stories that Jon Levin has adapted for There Will Come Soft Rains or not, these creative, image-intensive works successfully make the leap from the page to the stage. In the first, Stanislaw Lem's "How the World Was Saved," Clare McNulty, operating a small bunraku puppet named Trurl, appears in the midst of a field of everyday objects planted like flowers, each glistening (like Trurl) with a single lightbulb on an otherwise unlit stage. The story beings whimsically: as Trurl tests the alliterative limitations of his new invention (a machine which can only create things that begin with the letter "N"), a chorus of robotic actors toss objects from noodles to negligees on stage and inform him that they cannot produce natrium, as that is just the Latin word for sodium. Things take a darker turn (though still couched in comic, Seuss-like language), when Trurl's jealous rival, Klapaucius (Mary Notari) challenges the machine to do Nothing.

Things only get better from there: Jesse Garrison single-handedly brings Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg's "On the Nature of Time" to life, aided by a nifty pseudo-hologram self (that would not be out of place at 3LD) that helps him to portray his paradoxical selves as he shifts between playing the father and son in a suicide/revenge by time travel plot gone horribly wrong. And then there's Ray Bradbury's seminal "There Will Come Soft Rains," in which an automated house, puttering on long past the apocalypse, is portrayed by three actresses (Lisa Maley, Kendall Rileigh, and McNulty) who use simple, symbolic actions that are quite appropriate for a story that is itself symbolic.

The performances are perfunctory, showcasing the stories rather than the actors, but Levin's direction is sublime, really capturing the powerful, lingering images of each tale, from the sight of actors slowly turning out all the lights in the universe to that of photographic flashes revealing the atomized remains of a family, emblazoned in white on an otherwise ash-covered wall. Though the stories warn us of how unfortunately easy it is to destroy what is so hard to create, this adaptation, far from robotic, thankfully preserves and enhances instead. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "I'd rather be probed" and 5 being "Out of this world," There Will Come Soft Rains gets a 4.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Fringe: Green Eyes

Photo/Jasmine Wang

Green Eyes
is a remarkably ambitious piece of theater for such a simple love story, but whether it's Brian Mazzaferri's music, Lizzie Leopold's choreography, or simply the performances from the two singers (Nick Blaemire and Celina Carvajal), two dancers (Ryan Watkinson and Melissa Bloch), and five-piece folk rock band (that's the classic guitar and drum mixed with the classical cello and bass, plus a piano for good measure), I'm sold. Though it's a simple story, Jessica Redish directs the work with, as the song goes, "loving ambiguity," working toward the emotionally rich experience rather than the narratively detailed musical. Given the scope of time that passes--an entire relationship in one hour--we understand that inevitable fighting and the hopeful make-ups, so having a muddled middle isn't actually a problem: the dancing mirrors the music, the music mirrors the singing, the singing mirrors the dancing, and caught somewhere in all those reflections is the teal tint of truth. There are still a few places where it's hard to focus, and, for a show that's essentially about contrasts, a few more duets (like the spectacular "I Only Know I Am"/"Hope in the Questions" finale) are needed to tie things together. But it's marvelous work all around--particularly the lift-heavy dancing--and my eyes were wide open throughout. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Green with nausea" and 5 being "Green with envy," Green Eyes gets a 4.5.

Fringe: The Redheaded Man

Photo/Dave Adler

Halley Bondy's new play, The Redheaded Man, starts out as a comedy that explores the difference between illness and insight, but by repressing the drama until late in the one-act, Bondy ends up with a lot of unprescribed side-effects: exaggeration, implausibility, and senselessness. Luckily, these unpredictable moments are still largely entertaining, thanks to the relationship between Brian (David Jenkins), the "ill" architect who creates buildings by altering his symbolic memory, and his roommate, Jonathan (James Edward Shippy), whose family adopted him after his mother's death. When these two argue, it's with years of happy memories mixed in with resentment, which makes their conversations far richer than the one-sided and berating "lectures" from The Redheaded Man (Bruce Bluett), a manifestation of Brian's absent father figure, and far better than the manic scenes with Dr. Jones (Michelle Sims), a psychiatrist who is addicted to the drug she's a shill for. The final character, Lydia (Bondy), is another device, but at least she has a dramatic purpose, one that goes beyond manifesting Brian's madness or criticizing an industry that would rather medicate effects than treat the cause. Like the character she plays, Bondy arouses a lot of interest in Brian's unique condition, but despite Jessica Fisch's surefire direction (projections show us what Brian sees), the show is repressing a deeper, richer, meatier second act. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "Untreated depression" and 5 being "Pill-popping euphoria," The Redheaded Man gets a 3.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Fringe: Walls

Photo/Jordan Matters

No matter how complex the characters, coming up with convincing obstacles always seems to be what stands between a playwright and a natural drama. To his credit, Aron Ezra skips straight to the character building, dipping into the fertile territory of magical realism to manifest a literal (and symbolic) obstacle: a warm, wet, pulsing wall that has, one day, split the Pierce's "happy" home in half. As it turns out, the only way to dissolve this supernatural barrier is by tearing down the invisible walls of their hearts: that is, confessing their secrets. And this is where Ezra runs into a wall of his own: the premise is fine, but the characters end up being rather artificial. Dennis (Adam Richman) is a workaholic because he's bad at his job, and while he loves his wife, he's not attracted to her because he still mourns his dead first love (of eleven years). Naomi (Julie Jesneck) is, of course, pregnant, and because she's felt neglected by her husband's long hours, she's recently had an eleven-month affair (which adds just enough ambiguity to the baby). While the little lies that lead up to these big confessions are cute and occasionally romantic, it's pretty obvious where the big lies are leading: how could two people, married for four years, not know these basic things about one another's needs? Ezra's play is also dramatically unbalanced: both actors do good work, but Naomi is made into a sharp-tongued villain, and Dennis is, at heart, a victimized romantic. It's somewhat appropriate that the play comes together, with only minor repetition, up until the very end, but it's ultimately disappointing, too. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "A nasty, rusty, chain-link fence," and 5 being "A spotless, perfectly painted mural," Walls gets a 3.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The King Is Dead

Photo/Jonathan Slaff

I'm not surprised that a play inspired by Stephen King is a little goofy and B-movie-like, but I do wish that Caroline V. McGraw hadn't gotten distracted by the superfluous and spangled Elvis motif, and that she spent more time focusing on her strong central character, Farrah; then perhaps director Jerry Ruiz wouldn't end up trying to maintain a creepy atmosphere all on his lonesome.

[Reviewed for Time Out New York]

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Fringe: Velvet Scratch: Voyage of No Return

Photo/Evangelos Koulouris

The Nightmare Before Christmas's Halloween Town seemed like a "cheerie" place to stay, but the Velvet Town of Velvet Scratch: Voyage of No Return is a dreary deathtrap. Margot (Anastasi Revi), the cackling narrator of these unhappily ever afters, sets up each scene, and her cohorts, Laura Morgan and Alexandra Dyranis-Mounis, enact the gruesome effects. Some of these are derivative, like Edward Gorey hosting The Twilight Zone: a ballet dancer chops off her toes so that her feet will fit into some new slippers; an avid reader breaks her only pair of glasses while trying to reach the beautiful books on the top shelf of the library. But when Revi sticks to the fantastic, the show picks up: a cannibalistic cook transforms her doting sister into a bed and sleeps on her; her sister, so happy to finally be useful to her sister, hugs her . . . to death. The show is unfortunately a mixed bag, more tricks than treats, and the redundancy of Revi's thick foreign accent drag down the light nuances of the pantomime that would show us the beatific beneath all that is bestial. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "A very slow death" and 5 being "Dead is the new alive," Velvet Scratch: Voyage of No Return gets a 2.

What To Do When You Hate All Your Friends

[Reviewed for Show Business Weekly]

Matt (Todd D’Amour) isn’t the guy who has no friends; he’s the guy who, hating small talk, suddenly realizes that he hates all of his friends. Celia (Carrie Keranen) isn’t the queen bee of a literal cult of personality, The Friends; she’s the girl who, desiring to be alone, makes everyone desire her. It’s only natural that these two should fall in terrifically dysfunctional love in Larry Kunofsky’s new play, What to Do When You Hate All Your Friends. And even though the play isn’t nearly as antisocial as it bills itself, it’s a charismatically winning parable.

That story is presented by Enid (Amy Staats), a “lower-case-F friend” who swims between being a tentative character and the tenacious narrator, often delightfully blurring the line. (“I’m not here. Just act like I’m not here.”) This comic device immediately justifies the quirks of the drama, but also turns the so-called “impersonal” attitudes into some very personal scenes, coming off as a cross between a Kelly Link short story and a Sarah Ruhl drama. Director Jacob Krueger wisely roots things more in the realistic than the magical, but leaves himself the room for cartoon-like effects (as when characters pop their heads out from a wall) and image-heavy metaphors (like the slow-motion, sandwich-eating conclusion).

None of this would matter, of course, if the cast weren’t so loveable. They go about making everything anti-antisocial, from Susan Louise O’Connor’s cute breakdowns in a variety of roles to Josh Lefkowitz’s full-circle turns from playing an easygoing square to an attention-starved lawyer. D’Amour, always a physically confident actor (he’s built for Shepard and Williams), turns that muscle to comedy: his grand mal seizure of a bear hug draws the biggest laughs of the night. Meanwhile, Keranen matches him by channeling a husky intensity beneath her fragile exterior: an anonymous yet mutual masturbation session comes across as Sesame Street Gone Wild. Staats, however, steals the show. Her specific yet fluttery actions are more representative of Kunofsky’s message than anything else: a genuine love that is destined to never come together.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Fringe: Bound in a Nutshell

It's not as if Shakespeare needs to be adapted, but if you're going to, it'd better be something new, bold, truthful, or necessary. Bound in a Nutshell is all of these things, a modern 90-minute Hamlet that (like last year's brilliant Macbeth adaptation, A Walking Shadow) begins near the end (Hamlet having just killed Polonius), and then strikingly wends through Hamlet's mind. Imprisoned, Hamlet is now physically tortured, too, and remains on stage throughout. To do this, Gregory Sherman and Gregory Wolfe take liberties with the text, merging characters like First Player and Laertes with Horatio, repurposing the Gravedigger as a torturer (a nifty feat in redirection, Yorick and all), and excising comic characters like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

For fans of Hamlet, it's an exciting shakeup, but for strangers to Shakespeare, it's also one of the clearest tellings of this haunted tale, thanks largely to Chris Haas, whose Hamlet is violent yet fluid (like Bill Irwin). Wolfe's ingenious staging also plays each scene to its strength: his "too too solid flesh would melt" is defiantly delivered to a surveillance camera: for the first time, we see Claudius (Christopher Yates) and Gertrude (Kathy Keane) react to what is usually a secondhand account. There's restraint too: when Hamlet yells "get thee to a nunnery," his words go unheard and unfelt by Ophelia (Monique Vukovic), who sits helplessly on the other side of a prison visitation cell's solid glass window, begging her lover to pick up the phone. Best of all is the poetic license taken with the imagery: Hamlet, strapped to a chair, being tortured into a confession of madness, sees Ophelia--who has just drowned--walk slowly and silently by.

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it's hard to keep from waxing poetic on Moonwork's fantastic production. This is what it means to adapt a play, and on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "not to be" and 5 being "wondrous strange," Bound in a Nutshell gets a perfect 5.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Fringe: The Boy in the Basement

Photo/Luke Ratray

Everything depends on context: most people would use a box full of contemporary romance novels for firewood, but not Katharine Heller. She still used those books for fuel, sparking her imagination, but the only thing on fire is her playful, hot, pulp of a tale: The Boy in the Basement. Heller's show plays to a similar crowd as last year's Beebo Brinker Chronicles, but, as an original show, takes itself far less seriously, and is unabashedly fun. When a very hot burglar (Tom Macy) gets caught in the act by four coeds, he finds himself a rather willing sex slave, out to satisfy the needs of a Venezuelan dominatrix (Heller), a holistic hippie (Anna Stumpf), and an "experienced" woman (Lynne Rosenberg). He does that, but in the process, falls for the naive Midwestern virgin (Meghan Powe) who thinks that he's doing yard work as punishment. The side plots, which involve a double-cast Michael Solis, aren't as effective, but Heller's choice to make the narrator, Catherine DuCheval (Nick Fondulis), an excitable guy is clever, and it not only provides a huge boost to the comic atmosphere but helps the show to remain uninhibited as it leaps from scene to scene. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "I pictured my mom having sex" and 5 being "I'd come again," The Boy in the Basement gets 4.5 stars.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Fringe: Tiny Feats of Cowardice

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Susan Bernfield's mundane fears (of everything) aren't nearly as interesting as the political musings of Rose Mary Woods (from Stretch). However, that makes her latest play exactly what it claims to be: a tiny feat, for Bernfield is captivating throughout, an Everywoman who, aided by Rachel Peters's music (a nice trick that has not yet become a gimmick), denounces single engine Cessnas, the constant worry of being a mother, the neverending precipices of the world and its possibilities: "Stolen passwords/stoned bikers/hungry sharks/malignant cysts." Her narrative jumps from a trip to Belize to her friendless childhood and surprisingly (but not that surprisingly) to 9/11, and the end result comes across like a Sondheim chamber musical, buttressed by charming lines like, "I think, ah, for you my dears, the sky's the limit. Please don't be astronauts." Daniella Topol, who directs, could help Bernfield a lot by helping to vary the levels of fluttery yet functional fear, but on the whole, it's a very winning performance, and a very winning play. On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being "My fears were completely justified," and 5 being "Frighteningly good," Tiny Feats of Cowardice gets a 4.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Summer Shorts 2

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Summer calls to mind many things, but very rarely does it conjure up a cramped studio apartment, an I Am My Own Wife level of clutter lining the various shelves and nooks. Well, lotion still trumps commotion, especially when it's so loosely connected (by light jazz, of all things), but a few bright spots in the second annual Summer Shorts festival keep things cool enough to merit the trip out to 59E59.

Not that there aren't rough spots: both series A and B begin with abysmal pieces, the former with Leslie Lyles's The Waters of March and the latter with Keith Reddin's Our Time Is Up. There are few rules for the short form, but these two manage to break both: in the first, Amy Irving is asked to juggle a near incomprehensible suicide speech about her empty, alcoholic lounge life, with a bad Portuguese nightclub act, the result of which are a lot of dropped notes and flubbed transitions. In the latter, which is even less creative, Sharon (Clara Hopkins Daniels) turns the psychoanalysis back on Calley (Janet Zarish) and ends up with a punchline that even Freud would've been hard pressed to find significance in. It doesn't help that Ms. Daniels is so passive that she seems bored to be onstage and that Ms. Zarish is so determined to be melodramatic enough for the both of them.

But from there, both programs get far better, with actual characters to back up even flimsy plots, as in Eduardo Machado's Crossing the Border (Series A), a tale of a Mexican father's struggle to turn his intellectual son into a professional athlete, the point being that brains won't get them green cards or respect. (The cramped space, unfortunately, and the lazy acting don't help to convey this message.) Michael Domitrovich's On Island (Series B) also makes a nice go of it: while his groom-with-cold-feet plot is nothing new, Leo's attempt to help his brother, George, feel more comfortable about marrying Sandi, especially in the honest recounts of their childhood memories, sells the piece.

Continuing the even distribution between programs, Neil Koenigsberg and John Augustine both turn out nicely rounded plays. On A Bench starts with explosive exaggeration: Robert (David Beck) attempts to study on a park bench as Anne (Mary Joy) loudly enjoys a black-and-white cookie and rudely interrupts. But the piece isn't about creepy busybodies: instead, by placing the bench across from the Stonewall Inn, Koenigsberg justifies Robert's aggressively antisocial behavior by his discomfort with his sexuality, and makes Anne more than a Florida retiree by giving her a younger brother who vanished in those terrible riots. PeopleSpeak operates the same way: the play very comically opens with Siobhan (the excellent Sherry Anderson) getting interrupted mid-suicide by a call from her mother (the persistently creative sort who sends musical affirmations by mail), but then using that dark comedy to turn the mirror back on our isolated, text-heavy cellular world. Even when things go overboard, with a friendly waiter (the comic Nick Westrate) "channeling" an overly moral spirit to neatly bring the play to a close, the energy is buoyant enough to keep things afloat.

Of course, the real reason to see either series is for Roger Hedden's Deep in the Hole (Series A) or Terrance McNally and Skip Kennon's mini-musical, Plaisir D'Amour (Series B). Hedden's piece is a nonstop satire of the partying life--that is, what is "too much"? Billy Hopkins builds the action slowly, going from an argument about the deadening woes of bottom-shelf liquor to a rousing game of spin the bottle and ultimately to its logical conclusion: accidentally possibly snorting anthrax. (That sentence makes more sense in context.) The whole thing is held together by the four actors, especially the carelessly suave David Ross, but it's the everyday tone that defines this piece. As for Plaisir D'Amour, it's the most polished of the eight plays, with outstanding performances from Stephanie D'Abruzzo and Jonathan C. Kaplan as they chronicle a relationship from the desperate single life to the troubled married life and eventually, with their own children now married, to the comfortable afterglow of a once passionate life. Far too many one-acts, even decent ones, come across as ultimately empty etudes, but this musically simplistic piece does for a transient comedy what Prelude & Liebestod did for drama.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

All The Rage

Photo/Benjamin Jaeger-Thomas

All The Rage is really just a character vehicle: ten actors maneuvering a strip of stage that has essentially been stripped of comedy, tragedy, and a real sense of development. I felt it was an empty production, and yet was utterly engaged by the actors.

[Reviewed for Time Out New York]

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


When the war comes home to America, it won't be with a whimper or a bang: it'll be with fries. That's the beauty of Eliza Clark's darkly comic Edgewise, in which three normal teens (i.e., pot is smoked, curses are flung, and balls—"big psychic balls"—are what it's all about) find their everyday Saturday morning shift at the local (Mc) Dougal's interrupted by an air strike and a bloodied stranger, Louis (Jedadiah Schultz). The whiff of bombast is bombed away with surgical precision, forcing the characters to grow up rather quickly, their mundane ramblings quickly turned to panicky attempts to restore order to their safe little world.

For Ruckus (David Gelles Hurwitz), a violent fabulist, Louis's arrival is an opportunity to safely back up his psychotic facade (he wants a gun "Uh, to kill people. To look at. To stroke."). Faster than a short-order cook can grill a burger, he's interrogating Louis like a hopelessly miscast action-film cop: "I'm aware of the way these things work," he says, and then later, "I think you know that I'm about to get mean. That you better start telling the truth or things are gonna get kind of bad for you." Thanks to Daniel Zimmerman's clever set design, which contrasts this dimly lit storeroom with the cheery dining area, we also get to observe Marco (Justin Levine) and Emma (Jessica Howell), trying to cope with the situation. It's a direct manifestation of the script's meditation on what a Civil War on Terror between an indistinguishable Us and Them might look like: an order of paranoia with a side of fear.

It's also the mark of great direction on Lila Neugebauer's part, who has the actors play the moment-to-moment shifts in full, so that the exaggerated comedy never compromises the reality of the situation. At one point, Ruckus enters the kitchen and, catching the shy Marco finally responding to the commandingly flirtatious Emma's advances, calls him out for stealing a Sprite. Never mind that Ruckus's hands are covered in blood: what's important is how the world spins madly on, latching onto small things to keep its head straight. There's a certain sick truth to the prevalent commercialism: in the midst of all this chaos, orders continue to come through the loudspeaker, and even the potential bad guys, like Paul (Eric Gilde), hide their agendas with preppy cheer and service with a smile, no matter how much blood's on their hands.

It's a terrific production all around, for it is eerily prescient, strangely comic, and utterly believable. Clark's work calls to mind other exaggerative realists, like Sam Shepard, in that the character-driven scenes build up a world that is, at times, impossible to reject. Imagine a New Jersey that is nightmarish not on account of being New Jersey, but for the corpses casually punctuating the road, a world where mothers shower in their clothes so as to always be at the ready, and then imagine all the ways in which life forces itself to go on.

Ultimately, Edgewise chooses to be a coming-of-age story, but despite the fast-food setting or the single act, there's nothing rushed in the development, and Clark never misses an opportunity to normalize the atmosphere of war: When Ruckus mentions that Emma can write her college essay on it, she says, "Sure, I'll write my college essay about the time me and two stoners tied some guy to a chair in the back room of a fucking Dougal's while his leg bled out all over the floor. I'll write about that. Great. Thank you." To wit, Ruckus replies that she might want to change the location: a homeless shelter would play better to the admissions board. Scarily enough, isn't that what's really important?