Friday, September 03, 2004

Theater Sports

Last weekend, I saw two plays in 48 hours. Friday night, Deb and I went to a 10:30 p.m. staging of John Del Signore's "The Pet Goat Convention" as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. We had some trouble finding the Access Theater, which is located at 380 Broadway -- off-off-Broadway theater... on Broadway! -- because the information we received from our friend in the play indicated that it was at 340 Broadway. It was not.

Similarly, the play began quite a bit late because one of the key cast members -- Larry Weeks -- was also not at that address. When he eventually arrived, he came in with a flourish and started struggling with some chords and a synthesizer on stage. One of the production crew members struggled to persuade him to not worry about them -- and to get backstage so the play could begin. Deb and I were struggling ourselves trying to gauge whether Weeks was intoxicated. Later, we learned that he had been -- and moreso.

Regardless, the play was anything but intoxicating. A mish-mash of assorted progressive -- and occasionally transgressive -- political and cultural ideas and themes, the play fell short because the script -- and staging -- only hinted at the true importance and insight of each concept. Set in a post-apocalyptic future in which people burrow below ground to live and lock their hired help in storage sheds while they're not working, two former friends hash out their differences while a psychedelic holdover (Weeks' character) encourages the down-on-his-luck musician to carpe diem -- and dame, too, in the end.

In this future world, the entertainment media (pop music in particular) seems to control most public discourse, and one of the cleaning team -- the hired help I mentioned above -- played by the extremely young Sophie or Emma Whitfield (twin sisters!), was a pop music icon in her "home country." All of that could have added up to something interesting. I kept hoping that the performance would crescendo to the complete telling of the pet goat convention story -- which is never told in whole form -- but instead, Weeks' neo-Iron John and Jeff Auer's failed musician exchange weaved in and out of Philip Burke's Jay Mohr-like posturing and Neil Butterfield's inscrutable foreign cleaning man.

Of the cast, only Doug Halsey -- our friend, for full disclosure -- surprised with a well-played emotional outburst near the end of the play. Now, the end of the play. While I didn't get the crescendo and loose thread-tying conclusion I was hoping for, I did get a confusing musical performance in which Halsey played guitar and pop diva Sophie or Emma Whitfield sang a frightful number that kept repeating the phrase "American made" or "American maid" while the slur-voiced Weeks banged on a red pail and looked up Emilie Elizabeth Miller's skirt.

Sunday afternoon, then, took my friend Parul and I to the Kirk Theater off Broadway for a free media staging of "John F. Kerry: He's No JFK," a play scheduled to coincide with the Republican National Convention -- and a project that's attracted some attention. Backed by one of Gov. Pataki's top campaign aides, Patrick Donohue, the play -- which portrays Hillary Clinton as a power-hungry lesbian, Kerry as a bungler who faked the injuries that earned him his Purple Hearts and can't get over an obsession with JFK, and Janet Reno as a feisty go-go dancer -- drew the governor's ire and led to Donohue's distancing from the production.

Juicy RNC off-Broadway stuff, no? The question then becomes, does the play deserve such controversy and attention? Yes and no. Yes, because, as spokeswoman Amanda Scarpone has said, the Democrats don't have the lock on humor. It's a noble attempt to upstage Air America-style comedy from folks such as Janeane Garofalo and Al Franken, and I appreciated a conservative play portraying Bush as a cowboy-howdy buffoon (as easy and harmless a joke as it is to make). Yet no, because the play never quite locks onto its parodic stride, either. The performance felt like a series of Saturday Night Live impressions strung together with a rambling roundup of Kerry's foibles.

That said, there were many bright moments and funny bits. Whitney Kirk -- crowned Miss Arkansas in 2003! -- did a fair job as Hillary and Jane Fonda. The scene in which Richard Seth Rose's Howard Stern continuously bleeps out a dismayed Diane Sawyer was quite nice. And Marchand Odette's Al Sharpton impression was absolutely priceless -- a perfect portrayal of a sweat-drenched Baptist preacher and a highlight of the show (which redeemed her extremely irritating bits as Robin Quivers and Downtown Julie Brown). Kevin Kean Murphy neared carrying off Kerry's cliff-like visage and mannerisms. Of the cast, though, I think Rose has the widest range -- including a perhaps unnecessary, manic, last-minute addition of a James McGreevey scene -- and the most actor-like presence.

The play offered a nice balance to our visit to the Tank, which housed the Progressive Tourist Bureau, just before the performance. And it was funny in places. But is it worth $56 funny? Not really. The laughs weren't large enough. The ideas weren't interesting enough. And the criticism wasn't serious enough. I didn't learn anything new, and the barbs -- while there -- weren't overly sharp. I'd save my $56 to tip a pint or more for Kerry.

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