Monday, November 28, 2011


The great thing about site-specific theater is that even when the play's awful, you're at least somewhere new. Thankfully, Alex Goldberg's It Is Done isn't awful -- just mediocre -- and it's in the basement of The Mean Fiddler, a cheery, old-fashioned bar, so you can pass the time with a few drinks. Passing the time is also the theme of Goldberg's ninety-minute play, in which Matt Kalman plays a horny bartender whose godforsaken watering hole is visited by two strangers, Ruby (Catia Ojeda) and Jonas (Ean Sheehy), and their two dark secrets. Or at least that's the theme of the stronger and funnier first half, in which the characters flirt with and/or disgust one another; once the ice melts (it soon gets very hot, in case the play's foreshadowing isn't clear), the play gets stuck on a single, mildly entertaining note, which largely revolves around (1) how much fun Ojeda seems to be having and (2) how infectiously close the audience is to her as she prowls around the bar.

The plotting renders its own points moot; when one character asks why certain unnatural things are happening, the reply is that "It's more fun this way," along with the disclaimer, "Well, for me." It's a one-sided cry for help, and although there are a few neat visual tricks worked out between director Tom Wojtunik and production designer Tim McMath (the paintings, the door, and the jukebox all have their moments), the dramatic balance of power never changes. It Is Done has no shortage of quips (e.g., if rotary phones are classic, so's syphilis), but writing like that's bottom-shelf theater. If we begin as flies on the wall, eavesdropping on a fresh first date, by the end we're closer to the sort of flies that buzz around a long-dead corpse.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

THEATER: Seminar

Douglas (Jerry O'Connell) is a slick, Yaddo-referencing, New Yorker-ready writer; the smug sort of guy who likes to talk about the so-called "interiority and exteriority" of his peers. Izzy (Hettienne Park) is his polar opposite, a rough and energetic writer, but one with the ability to go far in publishing, even if she has to flash her tits to do so. This makes Kate (Lily Rabe), the prude, spoiled would-be feminist more than a little jealous, and she'd say something about it if only she weren't so repressed. And then there's Martin (Hamish Linklater), who is simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the lot of them, the sort of insecure genius whose work ends up being published posthumously. These four young writers have each paid $5,000 to secure a private workshop with the once-famous Leonard (Alan Rickman), so consider yourself lucky to have the opportunity to witness him dryly cut each of them down to size for considerably less money. Welcome to Theresa Rebeck's wickedly fun Seminar, a lesson that seeks to blur the line -- with razor-sharp wit -- between the self-diagnosed whorishness of Hollywood, the precise artlessness of The New Yorker, and the long-sought after (and ill-paid) honesty of "Literature."

Some people will inevitably be turned off by the self-absorbed nature of the play, and those who have taken a workshop will appreciate the backtalk, seething acceptance, and delusional comments quite a lot more. But director Sam Gold (as he did with the outstanding yet potentially insular Circle, Mirror, Transformation) manages to open up the production, working at a faster, sharper pace, sure, but with his patent naturalism intact. The students are sincere in their insincerity, and their professor means well with his mean-spirited comments; that's sometimes just how the world works. In Gold's hands, even Rebeck's shorthand stereotypes -- a few nymphomaniacal moments, a large tub of ice cream for a depressed girl -- manage to be successfully played for more than just laughs. (It helps that Rebeck is intensely aware of her own stylistic tics; unlike Mamet, who nowadays wallows in his own style, she is consciously making choices.)

The young actors are perfectly cast, with a surprisingly moderated turn from O'Connell and some heavy lifting from Rabe, who transforms from mousy shrew to confident sexpot. And while the play suffers a little from Martin's unwavering angst, Linklater learned enough about inflections while working on The School for Lies to at least provide some variance to all his cynical sniveling. Let's face it, though: this Seminar is largely taken for its professor, and Rickman is potent and present in this role, as much a dominating force as Linda Lavin was in Collected Stories. There's a marked difference -- as there should be -- between the master and the students, and Rickman is careful to ensure that his critiques are more than simple dismissals or snipes (Snapes?): you can see that he understands where his pupils/cast-mates are coming from, having been there once himself. 

Harsh truths are rarely this entertaining, although it helps to be on the unlit side of the theater for some of the more scathing moments. Seminar may not be high art, but as Leonard reminds his students, noting the respectable positions of ghost- and screenwriters, it's still good work. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

THEATER: The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness

Photo/Web Begole
Real life is rarely as simplistic as fairy tales make it out to be, and the road to reconciliation is never paved with breadcrumbs. Nonetheless, there's hope and beauty in Carla Ching's The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness, which keeps the Hansel and Gretel references to a minimum, and instead focuses on the ways in which people grieve, or as the show tweets to its audience, "What do you do when you lose something you can never get back?" For Han (Christopher Larkin), you can only make sense through songs, and for his foster sister Greta (Ali Ahn), communication happens through tweets, which allow her to defend herself with Sun Tzu-like precision. Some, like Greta's housemate Miles (Bjorn Dupaty), channel their rage through dance, while others who are more advanced in the suffering of the world, like Han and Greta's guardians, Opal (April Matthis) and Doc (David Spangler), understand how to listen. But after accidentally causing a fire, Greta finds that she must prove herself not to her family, but to her hermetic jailer/counselor, Barbara "Baba" Yaga (Cindy Cheung), who has her own prescriptions for swallowing sadness with as many spoonfuls of sugar as it takes. At the same time, Han must come to grips with his own tightly wound emotions, lest he wind up just as isolated and lost in the wilderness as his sister.

The Sugar House is impeccably directed by Daniella Topol, who neatly showcases the various ways we cope and communicate, splattering tweets across Clint Ramos's two-dimensional, compressed house of a set, while wisely stepping back from interfering with the simple guitar songs written by Ching and Larkin. Topol also wisely elides over some of the more fanciful elements of the show, turning Baba from a villainous witch into a overconfident analyst, one who just happens to drug her patients, creepily stroke them (as if they were pets she were teaching to perform tricks), and occasionally lock up in isolation. It's met by an able cast, too, particularly Ahn, who never gets lost in the complexities of time-skipping script, that presents her as a rebellious arsonist one moment and an overcompensating street tough, a lighthearted sister, a mourning daughter, a betrayed and wounded girl, or a smugly Stepfordian penitent the next. In a play that lightly addresses cultural identity, moderately examines familial identity, and stresses personal identity, this is a more impressive feat than words can do justice.

 Speaking of words, Ching's language is a delight, defying standard forms of expression in favor of finding words that are inexplicably right. For instance, in one of the group therapy sessions established by Baba, Greta explains that she's feeling "puce" about the fire: "It's a hot, ugly, uncomfortable color." Later, when Miles is helping Greta to survive Baba's crushing rules of conformity, he explains that "Normal is a coat you can put on or take off": in other words, we don't have to be defined or constrained by any single brushstroke. At the same time, Ching balances her poetry with simply put phrases that just as effectively capture the mood: "It's an awful thing to not have a place," says Miles, helping Greta to find her angered brother. Best of all, her characters are far from the moral saints of fairy tales: Greta isn't always deserving of sympathy, and Doc and Opal have their own moments of selfishness and resentment; the story, then, is in how they overcome themselves just to earn a shot at living happily ever after.

Monday, November 14, 2011

THEATER: Burning

Photos/Monique Carboni
Thomas Bradshaw has been reading too much of the Marquis de Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom, for his play, the at-best-pornographic Burning, has only one motto to live by, as digested by a fourteen-year-old drug addict, Chris (Evan Johnson): "The only sin is to stifle your natural impulses, because this deprives you of being as nature wants you to be. There is nothing un-natural in this world except self-deprivation." Though Bradshaw quotes from Strindburg, too, and calls for honesty in the theater, the result is a most unnaturally acted and unconvincing mishmash that fumbles at the unspoken meanings of "family." Worse, rather than stand demonstratively on their own, these disparate plots are insultingly linked at their lowest common denominator, the Older Chris (Hunter Foster). As for the feeble echoes of various funerals, recitations of Emily Dickinson, and hookups between the two timelines (1983 and 2011), they show not that Bradshaw has tried, but that he has given up, most likely while laughing his ass off in a post-ejaculative stupor, sitting bare-assed on a pile of your money. Even taking the show as a series of slices of life, which illustrate how even incestual Neo-Nazis can be human (they're concerned about the amount of fiber in their diet, just like everyone else), they'd be the sort of slices one gets at, say, Godfather's Pizza: fugghedabout it. 

Unlike previous work by Bradshaw, Burning fails to be distressingly funny (The Bereaved), provocatively offensive (Southern Promises), or surprisingly hopeful (Dawn): instead the aggressive, full-frontal nudity is now being used as a crutch, substituting physical revelations for any actual intimacy. It's theatrical prostitution, a series of impulses in search of a good hole to stick them in. Family, that big idea, is reduced to glosses like the following: Jack (Andrew Garman), a famous stage actor, and his boyfriend Simon (Danny Mastrogiorgio), a producer, take in the fourteen-year-old Chris. At first, they're merely looking for a hot, young servant, but they actually grow fond of him, and care for him even after he abandons them for Donald (Adam Trese), a treacherous playwright, and comes down with HIV. No matter how horrible the crime, it can be forgiven by true love . . . unless, of course, a businessman were to adopt a Cambodian sex slave, raise her to be an American pageant queen, and then marry her at the consensual age of twenty, a premise that Simon and his director, Noah (Andrew Polk), hypocritically reject as being pornographic. 

Such unrestrained passions spill over to Older Chris's life, in which he befriends a vulnerable Franklin (Vladimir Versailles), whose only sexual experience has involved being raped by a hermaphrodite, and whose mother, like Chris's, died of an overdose. Much as Chris found release through Donald, he now teaches Franklin to be free, or at least, he would if Bradshaw were even remotely interested in exploring rather than asserting this plotline. Instead, he fixates on Franklin's first cousin twice removed, Peter (Stephen Tyrone Williams), who is married to Chris's half-sister, Josephine (Larisa Polonsky), and Peter's collision course with the aforementioned incestuous Neo-Nazis, Michael (Drew Hildebrand) and Katrin (Reyna de Courcy). Or, at least, he would if he didn't also have to deal with introducing Peter to a Sudanese prostitute named Gretchen (Barrett Doss), whom he fantasizes is his recently dead first cousin -- Franklin's mother -- Lucy. This half-attentive attitude extends to Scott Elliotts's direction, which has the brusque, surface-level feel of a staged reading, and to the actors themselves, who act as if they're trying to put distance between themselves and their actions. The tenderness of "evil" people and the misplaced sincerity of the "just" are lost in this production, and if it appears as if Bradshaw is trying to make a statement about the artificial constructs of so-called "good" and "bad" things, it is simply because he wishes audiences to be too confused to label Burning as the awful shell of a play that it is.

Friday, November 11, 2011

THEATER: Dream Walker

Comics, particularly the long-running ones, often suffer from a sort of disassociative identity disorder, in that they've been worked on by so many writers and artists that they no longer belong to any one person; instead, they become a pop-cultural part of our collective consciousness: from issue to issue, they are whatever we need them to be. August Schulenburg's latest offering, Dream Walker, initially suffers from and ultimately benefits from this porous definition. What starts out as an cheesy "superhero" comic, with overdrawn Liefeld-like limbs and exclamatory, Stan Lee-style plotting, becomes, over the course of ninety minutes, something more suggestive and alluring, a Sandman-esque anthology looking at the nature of hope, imagination, and love.

The basic concept is that Richie (Collin Smith), an idle, idealistic, and id-filled would-be-writer, awakes one day to find that he can enter other people's dreams, connecting through some sort of mystical sleepwalking switchboard ('nuff said). His fastidious and tightly strung brother, Gary (Matthew Archambault), is dismissive of the idea, which causes him to come across as a bit of an asshole to the girl he's just started to date, Dawn (Jennifer Somers Kipley). What ensues is a clash between the peevishly practical and impishly impractical, for Richie, hoping to influence Dawn's dreams to make her love Gary again, accidentally makes Dawn fall for him. It's a little ironic, and a sign of character plotting that still need to be worked out, that the problematic part of the previous sentence is the breakup between Gary and Dawn, which occurs without warning, and is caused by an infidelity that Gary can't adequately explain. (Something to do with how his sense of unworthiness causes him to sabotage relationships, which is not what you'd expect of a swim-team champion and literal life-saver.)

It's at this point that the dreams shift from being gimmicks to being a part of the play. The early sequences, like "Dream Walker vs. The Big Bad Brother Boss" are simple stories meant to hint at Richie's powers, with a distant narrator explaining the pantomimed action. Latter dreams -- like the one in which Richie tries to talk to his brother, only to get unforgivingly killed by him, time and again -- are still funny (see the references to Mortal Kombat and Clue), but they're also deepening our understanding of the characters. This is also where Schulenburg gets looser with his imagery, getting all figurative and allegorical with his writing -- a good thing, since he's perhaps a stronger writer when not being so literal.

Dream Walker has quite a few kinks -- many on the technical side, which is to be expected of a new production company -- and would most likely benefit from a more visual direction that emphasizes the differences (and similarities) between reality and dream. (Consider the effects well-used by Ruhl, Callaghan, and Schwartz, to name a few at-times magical playwrights.) Still, save for a few blocking issues, Mariella Duke does a fine job of presenting the play, just as Smith (who seems to be channeling a little bit of Charlie Day's energies) does an outstanding job as the dreamer, loose enough to allow for just about anything, but grounded enough in clear wants and needs such that the play doesn't fly apart. So far as dreams go, can one ask for anything more?

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

metaDRAMA: Going With My Gut (I)

The first in a series of unresearched, immediate responses to things I've read in American Theater and/or other arts-related magazines.

From the November '11 American Theater
"To director Michelle Rougier, the decision [for city officials in Carrollton, GA] to shut down [a community theater production] The Rocky Horror Show is tantamount to censorship. "The city approved this show, and all the publicity that was done said that it was R-rated." 

Edit: remove the word "tantamount." It's censorship, plain and simple. The only reason to pull city funding from a community show would be if the company had deceived the city about the content of the play. As for the choice to revoke the use of the venue given that it is "inappropriate for the center," I'm just confused. Time and again, Republicans insist that money has the right to speak, and government should not be involved, so in a red-head state like George, why, if the company can afford to rent the hall, can't they?

I'm reminded of my own experience doing a community show back at Stuyvesant High School in '00, in which our production of Israel Horovitz's Line had been approved by an inattentive faculty adviser who had apparently not read the script. Three days before opening -- when we started putting up fliers that clearly stated the content of the show -- we were told that the show was now being shut down. No apology was offered, no alternative venue was suggested, and our attempts to get waivers from parents signalling their approval for the show, or for their children to see it, was denied. For those of you unfamiliar with Line, the most risque thing that actually happens is dance-as-metaphor-for-fucking, and while the show certainly has some suggestive lines and actions, the idea that the community needs to be protected from something nobody is forcing them to see is literally disturbing to me. For the record, the show the school was producing? The Crucible, which as we all know has absolutely nothing to do with sex.

From the October '11 American Theater
"True criticism that is expansive and acknowledges work on its own terms, not a narrow idea of performance.... The reviewer was applying her idea of what theatre should be with no regard to the artist's intentions.... We have to stop surveying these works as if creating theatre is like making a good bar of soap, in which the value of the work is based on the number of audience members that like it." 

Powerful thoughts from Marissa Chibas, an actor and theatre instructor in California. With her latter point about the craft of theater, I don't disagree in the slightest: the value of the work belongs within the work itself, and those attached to it. But I do find it a little disingenuous to say that critics must engage the work on its own level: we each approach theater in our own way, and to say that there is a specific way that art is meant to be experienced is to imply that there is only one right way to view a Picasso, only one correct reading of a short story, one valid emotion to be provoked by a piece of music.

From my own critical perspective, I do attempt to understand the playwright's goals (or director's, in the case of a revival), and where I have biases against a certain type of theater, I try to acknowledge them. (There's a reason you rarely see me covering one-man shows, high camp, burlesque, or Greek dramas.) But once I've addressed what I believe is being attempted, I've every right to talk about how that worked (or didn't) on my terms, with the vocabulary and experience that I've got. If you trust the audience to take your performance on its own terms, you've got to be able to trust the audience to be able to read a review on their own terms, that they'll understand that my dislike of something is not necessarily going to be theirs.

This is why I argue for the consistency and longevity of critics: the more you read from a single voice, the more you understand what their view is -- and the easier it becomes for you to determine where your view diverges from theirs. That can be helpful, too, and I'd argue that it's more "true" than a criticism that never clashes with the artist's goals.

THEATER: The Runner Stumbles

Photo/Kristen Vaughan
The Runner Stumbles, written in 1974 (and on Broadway in 1976), may be based on the true story of the murder of Sister Mary Janina back in the early 1900s (the play is set in Michigan, 1911), but it has not aged well. Milan Stitt's script, written in a populist and preachy style, uses the framework of a murder trial to hook the audience, and the testimony of witnesses and interviews between the inexperienced defense, Toby (Ric Sechrest), and his muted client, the former priest Rivard (Christopher Patrick Mullen), to provide flashbacks. It's a rather onerous way of getting to the good stuff: the emotionally fraught and potentially murderous relationship between the forward-thinking Rivard and the outspoken and unconventional Sister Rita (Casandera M. J. Lollar). Fatigably directed by Peter Zinn, it's a stumble that the play never fully recovers from.

Ideally, the tight compression of the six months that lead to the sister scandalously living under the same roof as Rivard (the fellow nuns come down with consumption), are meant to speed by so rapidly that we think nothing of the eroding "propriety," save for a few concerns voiced by Rivard's housekeeper, the converted and penitent Mrs. Shandig (Heather E. Cunningham). Instead, the scenes contemplatively crawl, with idle pauses and overly-reasoned dialogues drained of all passion. With the exception of the climax, even the more argumentative scenes feel scaled back. (This may be due in part to the awkward L-shaped seating of the Richmond Shepard space, or the acoustics that occasionally make the more whisper-y actors inaudible.) Of note, the Act I finale, in which Rivard cuts himself to prove that he does bleed, goes from an abrupt and shocking act to a deliberate and precise cut. The script suggests that Rivard smear blood on Sister Rita; the actual staging, like most of the show, is relatively bloodless.

This awkwardness extends to the courtroom scenes. Nat Cassidy, as the Prosecutor, attempts to build up some steam in his interrogations: an impossible task, for his scenes are always cut off. (The show suffers from a marked lack of momentum.) The low budget and frustrating lighting don't help either, in that shifts between past and present require scenic adjustments, and one's eye is all too frequently drawn to witnesses who are frozen in place as the scene attempts to "shift." The script facilitates some transitions better than others, like that of Louise (Becky Byers), a Crucible-like child who takes the stand to get even; others, like Rivard's rival, the Monsignor Nicholson (Jim Boerlin), are in the background so long they practically qualify as sets.

At its repetitious heart -- Stitt has a habit of recycling lines for "emphasis" -- the scenes between Rivard and Rita are quite good. Mullen in particular grows into the role, alternating as he does between the different sorts of strength -- personal and religious -- that have brought him so much trouble, and which have so confused the impressionable Rita. He's fortunate, too, to be paired against Lollar, who makes him work harder; his confrontations in the courthouse are far feebler (and less rehearsed with the fight choreographer).

Retro Productions has made a name for themselves focusing on revivals; hopefully this, their sixth-season premiere, is but a stumble.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

THEATER: Hand to God

Photo/Gerry Goodstein
Life used to be easy, posits the puppet Tyrone: "When you had to shit, you just let it drop." But as humankind evolved, started working together in groups, things like "good" and "evil" came in to play, and each generation has faced more and harder restrictions than the last. With that subversive grain floating around our brains, the lights come up on Robert Askins's Hand to God to reveal Tyrone's operator, Jason (Steven Boyer), a mild-mannered fifteen-year-old who, like his mother, Margery (Geneva Carr), is having trouble coping with the world after the loss of his unhappy father (who ate himself to death). Their emotions are repressed, unlike those of the local bad boy, Timothy (Bobby Moreno), who, having been forced into Margery's Christian puppet-theater workshop, wastes no time insulting his classmate, Jessica (Megan Hill), an overachieving student. Just as puppets were used to surreptitiously sermonize to children, so too is the cast soon treated like puppets -- with over-the-top aplomb, energetically directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel -- in order to prove Tyrone's opening assertion about the troubles (and benefits) of living in a world of rules.

Askins's script is filled with big moments, and only just grounded by the presence of Pastor Greg (Scott Sowers), who, despite pathetically longing for Margery, remains levelheaded in the chaos that ensues once the class begins to suspect that Jason's hand -- Tyrone -- is possessed by the devil. But while the large moments are excellently held down by Boyer, a talented physical comic actor who gets opportunities to show off both Jim Carrey-esque battles with himself and Evil Dead 2-like levels of blood-soaked camp, the little moments get lost in the chaos. For instance, it's clear how shitty Timothy's life is, the way that he struggles to express himself to Margery through violence, winding up in a semi-masochistic relationship with her once she decides that she's done being "nice," and Moreno does a fine job as the angsty, hormonal teen, but it feels somewhat empty, as if there's nothing more to his character than this one moment of realized passion: where's the fallout? Likewise, while it's clear that Jessica has an unusual crush on Jason, her attempt to "save" Jason from Tyrone by using her own (sexually active) puppet, Jolene, is so hilarious that the sincerity beneath it is often lost.

Goodness shines through -- Hand to God is definitely worth seeing, especially if you liked Avenue Q -- but the play gets as confused as it suggests humans are, lost along the way to so-called "righteousness." But in fairness to the moral, "bad" and "good" are arbitrarily assigned terms. All you really need to know is that Hand to God is a shockingly fun way to spend two hours.

Monday, November 07, 2011

THEATER: Queen of the Mist

Photo/Carol Rosegg
There's perhaps too much of Anna "Annie" Edson Taylor in Michael John LaChiusa's new musical about the last twenty years of her life, Queen of the Mist. For while it's true that there is greatness present, the show has as much trouble showing it as did Annie. In that light, the musical fails as the jaunty biography of this little-known 63 year-old woman, who, in 1901, became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel (and survive), bloated with tangential moments (and songs) about the Pan-American Expo, McKinley's assassination, and Carrie Nation's rhetoric. It succeeds, ironically, in the second act by charting the muddy waters of Taylor's downfall (post-fall), debunking the so-called hero mythos in the process and getting away from the more repetitive, plot-summarizing songs like those of "The Barrel," whose lyrics/ingredients are: "Fifteen inches at the base, thirty-four inches in the center, twenty-two inches at the top." Only Mary Testa's searing, soul-searching performance as Mrs. Taylor keeps the show afloat, equal parts confidence and desperation, as seen in the frenzied, wild-eyed "Laugh at the Tiger."

As is often the issue with daredevils, the writing is exceedingly thin, strong enough to last only as long as the stuntperson remains in the air. Annie needs conflict, but finds none -- not from her fragile sister, Jane (Theresa McCarthy), who casts her out and largely disappears, nor from her manager, Mr. Frank Russell (Andrew Samonsky), who is meant to be the voice of reason, if for no other reason than to protect his own liabilities. Samonsky does a fine job trying to sell us on his huckster-with-a-heart character, but his struggles show the issues with LaChiusa's script: we only ever get the huckster moments. Though he asks Annie for forgiveness, we remember him only as the rogue who drunkenly attempts to make money off of Annie by using a Taylor impersonator in "Million Dolla' Momma." Even Testa faces similar struggles:  the scene in which she accuses a dismissive Carrie Nation of greed ("You comfort yourself saying you're not a whore/neither am I/but we need more/more green to get by") is quite out of character, and works only because Testa's given plenty of other opportunities. Meanwhile, the ensemble suffers the worst of it, for while they sing prettily enough (save for a few odd disharmonies whenever the orchestra drops out), their characters are flat cut-outs, like DC Anderson's shouty "new manager," Tally Sessions's "Man with his Hand Wrapped in a Handkerchief" (the McKinley shooter), and Stanley Bahorek's portrayal of Mike (no relation) Taylor, a soldier who shows up to reassure a by-this-point delusional Annie that her act did give some, like him, courage and inspiration.

The structure of Queen of the Mist and Annie's life sloppily parallel each other so often that LaChiusa must have done so intentionally, if not ill-advisedly: after all, why would you want to make a musical that has no idea what it wants to do with itself? Director Jack Cummings III works well with what he's given -- a narrow swath of gymnasium flooring between two risers filled with audience members, a misty scrim that hides the orchestra, and an old piano that sweeps between the two sides of the stage -- but this is ultimately a show without a big idea, with a lackluster musical theme, and either a problematic first or second act: your call.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

THEATER: Two-Man Kidnapping Rule

Photo/Ryan Wijayaratne
Are you still reeling from your last relationship? Unable to find work? Stuck wearing a ridiculous reindeer sweater for the Christmas holidays? It sounds as if you need to bro it out with your best buds, head off to the clubs, find some available women, and bury your troubles in someone else for a while. If that sounds appealing, I recommend that you pick up your phone, hit up your friends, and do exactly that. You should only be checking out Joseph Gallo's Two-Man Kidnapping Rule if you want to play it safe, for this show is so filled with unfulfilled boasts and unearned morals that it has little room for anything real.

Jack (Curran Connor, acting and looking like an unfunny Adam Scott) is the bummed-out dude who kicks things off, dropping in on his old friend Vincent (Duane Cooper) -- not to hang out, but to complain about the latest and most final loss of the supposed love-of-his-life, Laura. Gallo states that the two have been friends since the ninth grade (both are now in their late twenties), largely because this isn't obvious from the chemistry between the two actors, who remain distanced from one another, even when crammed into a car. Cooper in particular seems uncomfortable with all the stereotypes Vincent is forced to fulfill as the man-child whose idea of friendship involves heavy ribbing, and who insists on dispensing relationship advice despite his inability to do anything but sleep with married women. (Think of the relationship between Barney and Ted on How I Met Your Mother, only, again, without the humor.) For instance: Jack is performing a one-man memory play as he sorts through his "ex-box" (a shoebox filled with memories from his time with Laura), when he stumbles across some nude photos of other women; Vincent confesses that he's been whacking off to these pictures and calls it his "holding fee." How . . . clever.

In any event, when Jack announces his intent to drive down from New Jersey to Texas to reunite with Laura, even though she's made it clear that she's marrying someone else, Vincent invokes an old rule from their childhood: the titular "two-man kidnapping rule," which allows any two members of the group to force a third member to do what they want, if it's in that third member's best interest. (You're free to debate whose best interest this play is in; the beloved New Ohio Theater seems determined to draw in a younger audience, regardless of the cost.) To do so, Vincent enlists the help of Seth (Andy Lutz, an exceptional cross between the manic Jesse Tyler Ferguson and dour Raul Esparza), and the three drive off to Bar Anticipation, to hook up with women. Never mind that the kidnapping rule seems a bit arbitrary when they allow the fourth member of their group, the soon-to-be-married Robbie, to beg off; Gallo is writing under a curtain of convenience, which is why Seth soon announces that he's also gotten engaged. It's one more thing for the wallowing romantic Jack and relationship-defiant Vincent to clash over. (This being a comedy about bros in their early adulthood, fists will be thrown at some point.)

Gallo has a few original moments of specificity in his play -- the term "mood dick," which deals with a specific sort of pee-shy person, or a sweet memory evoked by the image of the Pillsbury Doughboy -- but the vast majority of Two-Man Kidnapping Rule seems as if it's been snatched out of other contemporary comedies, largely sitcoms, which know better than to draw such shallow matters out over two hours. There are no stakes in the play, the catharsis is largely off-stage, and the resolutions are abrupt and unearned. Even were the show perfectly cast, it would drag: there are too many artificial situations for it to do otherwise. (Consider the arrival of a second Laura, who we never even meet; the sudden need to hit up a road-side ATM; and Jack's poor driving skills, which cause them to nearly hit a truck . . . twice!)

The most realistic portion of Two-Man Kidnapping Rule is the way director Robin A. Paterson has staged the driving that takes up half the play. Craig Lenti's sound design is dead-on, as is the pantomime from the actors that accompanies the turn signals, mirror-checking, and operation of windows and doors. Those moments seem completely natural, as if they've been ingrained in these people for years on end -- it's a shame that the decades-old friendship that is the centerpiece of the show isn't nearly as smooth.