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Over the past centuries, people have adapted Shakespeare’s plays in countless ways, often to put them in a contemporary setting. With Clean, by contrast, Bob Epstein has taken an already contemporary story and setting and written it in the manner of a good Shakespearean comedy mixed with a modern mystery, an approach that to me seems the harder task. Epstein doesn’t totally pull it off, but it’s more the plot that lets things down than the style, which is determinedly inventive even while drawing on classic tropes; if you can overlook the occasional lows of both silliness and moralizing that get in the way, and it’s not too hard to do that, you’ll find the show to be both funny and yet often also artfully engaging.
The scruffy jester Fescue, played with great warmth by John Kudan, is the play’s heart and soul; he gets the act opening monologues and the summation, as well as the chance to actually play a variety of roles because Fescue is supposed to be an undercover FBI agent who assumes other identities in order to follow his quarry. The first “other” he takes on is that of a down-on-his-luck Vietnam vet, whose panhandling you may find yourself sympathizing with even if you wouldn’t normally, just because he had the opening bit, which tends to invite a favorable bias because that point of view is the first one you get. Fescue is following Digby (Sarah Viccellio), the gorgeous and unbearably haughty daughter of a wealthy New York entertainment industry guy who is on her way to East Hampton; Fescue bumps into her and an entertainment lawyer named Darius (Bjorn Thornstad) in line at an LIRR ticket booth where Digby and Darius also start chatting, a conversation continued on the train, where we also meet the obnoxious Bill (Karl Jacob), whose role in events doesn’t become clear for some time, and the aggressive Brazilian beauty Lucianna, traveling with her daughter (who she animates amusingly, Avenue Q-style, with a small puppet) to see her sugar daddy.
Even after Fescue and the train’s conductor – actually another undercover agent, played by Cherene Snow – meet up in the lav to discuss what Fescue has found out so far, what’s going on remains pretty hazy until the second act, when we learn that Digby’s father (Albert Insinnia) has been put in jail on accusations of selling “cleans,” CDs whose record of having been manufactured was erased, a terrible crime against “our wonderful entertainment industry.” Bill, as it turns out, was one of her father’s associates, and he and Lucianna know a lot more about what’s happened than they let on at first; Lucianna’s sugar daddy, it turns out, is (or rather was) Digby’s father. Digby hires Darius to spring her dad from jail, and then with Fescue’s help they go after the other couple to get to the bottom of the case and clear his name, to show he’s clean of the charge of selling cleans.
The cast is quite strong, especially if you look past the ridiculousness of some of what they have to do in their roles, which goes over the top at times even for a farce. In addition to Kudan’s strong turn, Viccellio is particularly effective as Digby – she has the spoiled rich-girl posture and aura down to an art – and Thorstad does an admirable job of keeping a straight face in the midst of all the madness (it doesn’t hurt that his character is written with more humanity than lawyers usually are, perhaps because Epstein is himself an entertainment lawyer). And the actors are all so obviously having a good time onstage that even when you’re not quite sure that what you’re watching is necessarily as funny as it seems intended to be, it’s a kick to see anyway – you believe because they do. Similarly, a video projection by Katy Tucker that provides a little extra mileage for Sarah Pearline’s set, as well as some visual gags as punctuation, is sometimes a bit distracting, but in the end you go with it because it fits in so well with the half-winking, half-earnest approach taken in the rest of the show.
You’re probably wondering by now where the whole Shakespearean element I started off talking about comes in. I’m no Shakespeare scholar, so perhaps I shouldn’t have mentioned that, but the rhythms and pacing, the evident love of bawdy double entendres, the clear character types and even the basic plot arc just evoked the Bard’s comedies for me. The problem that I had with Clean was that it wasn’t always clear what Epstein wanted to say – what he wants the audience to take from the play. Not that there has to be one single intention or interpretation, but both the jumpy plot and, by association, the moral force (who are we to stand with? who's being satirized?) were too muddled, at least for me, to provide enough basis for judgment, so the resolution doesn’t quite leave you satisfied. Nonetheless, it’s refreshing to see a playwright go in such a different direction from most off-off-Broadway fare now, and even if Clean leaves something to be desired in certain areas, it has a lot of imagination and energy going for it, which in my book is no small thing.
Urban Stages // 259 W. 30th St. // Through July 1, Wed.-Sat. & Mon. 8pm, Sun. 7pm // Tickets via Smarttix // Photo by Katy Tucker