2006_08_arts_doolie.jpgThe productions covered in this installment of reviews from the 2006 New York Fringe Festival http://www.fringenyc.org are pretty far removed from those in last week’s dispatch -- which is just as it should be, since the Fringe is all about the new, the different, the craziness from every direction of the compass and layer of the mind. Plus, in today’s selection there are two can’t-misses: Big Doolie, by Richard Thompson, and David Isaacson’s Letter Purloined. More reviews will be up tomorrow; in the meantime, don’t let the festival’s halfway point pass without seeing something if you haven’t, or without seeing something totally different if you have. Shows reviewed this week: Big Doolie, I Coulda Been a Kennedy, The Tell-Tale Heart: A Musicabre, and A Letter Purloined. Tickets for these and all shows are online via the comprehensive show listings.
Photo from Big Doolie by Stephen Kunken.

Big Doolie
Tagged “a savage new comedy,” this brilliantly executed production definitely puts the emphasis on savage. No one ends up with what he really wants or thinks he wants, or certainly the ability to enjoy what does come, even after screwing many others over to try to get it. Marty Futch (played endearingly by Edward James Hyland) is an old but wily, well-respected sports agent who’s trying to get into the bigger time but is held back both by the careless antics of longtime clients (“Beef,” a football player broken in body and mind, and Jack Mungo, an aged sportscaster fighting his drift into irrelevance and ridicule) and by one of his tactics for the future – the hiring of an ambitious apprentice (“Bird Dog,” played with serious sliminess by David Christopher Wells) to help him scout young talent. Beef and Mungo are both cut or on the verge of being cut from their respective positions, and they cling to Futch in hopes that he can work miracles for them; Bird Dog, meanwhile, is mastering the ropes of underhanded sports agent sleaze, but he’s not doing so in the service of Futch’s office, and he’s also not learning it from Futch. Marty Futch definitely isn’t some lone straight shooter in a field of crooks, but he is haunted by the less-than-honest things he does, and more than anything he truly cares about his clients; this is wonderfully clear in Hyland’s performance, so even when Futch is enabling Beef by giving him pills and loaning him cars, and even when he’s going after another agent’s promised prospect, he’s still an intensely sympathetic figure. Thompson keeps the momentum going throughout the play with a series of ego clashes – a scene in which Futch negotiates with a TV producer over a new contract for Mungo, with Mungo in the room, stands out at the climax – but he doesn’t drive it over the cliff of melodrama. Big Doolie is loud and darkly, raucously funny in many places, but it still feels pleasantly understated overall; the examination of a sports agent’s world of double-crossing, greed, performance enhancement, and hubris call into question a lot about our society in general, but it doesn’t beat it over your head.
(Connelly Theater, 220 E. 4th St., next performance tonight, Sat. 7pm)

After the jump, reviews of I Coulda Been a Kennedy, The Tell-Tale Heart: A Musicabre, and A Letter Purloined.

2006_08_arts_couldakennedy.JPGI Coulda Been a Kennedy
Dennis Trainor, Jr.’s new play, presented by the edgy young Rude Mechanicals Theater Co., is hugely ambitious, especially for a Fringe play, and it is definitely not understated in its attempt to lay out the morals and politics of the past several generations. This is pulled off so well for much of the show that it doesn’t even seem right that it’s in the Fringe, until the end when the plot goes overboard with linking past and present and the cast staggers under the weight of too-unlikely events and dialogue. The play flips between 1970, 1987, and 2004, with scenes marked by period pop tunes and projections of photos and political news benchmarks, and it’s an epic family saga that would be impossible to describe fully in this small space. Basically, though in 2004 Devin O’Reilly (Noah Trepanier) is set to marry Holly Greco (Julie Fitzpatrick); both are political activists, though she comes from a small, staid upper class family while he comes from a large, rowdy clan with lots of skeletons in its past and present. Since before he was born, Devin’s family has been plotting how to make him President, but he has his own ideas, and all their money and devotion can’t keep him, or events in the world at large, in line – actually they backfire, as so often happens, and Devin flees from that planned fate, only to encounter it again, twisted, in his relationship with Holly and her parents. The interweaving of three eras is well-conceived and mostly convincing; the O’Reilly clan is a bit overwhelming in its size, leaving some characters less defined, and Holly is also a bit too much of a cipher, but at least Devin’s tragicomic career from baby in a whirlwind to passionate teen (played forcefully by Kelsey Kurz) to somewhat lost, yet determined, adult, is well charted. I Coulda Been a Kennedy doesn’t quite manage to hide the seams of the stories woven together, and it ends in a heavy-handed fashion, but with its sights set so high in the first place, falling a little short of them is still a pretty impressive accomplishment..
(Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal St., next show tomorrow Sun. 12 noon)
Photo by Thomas Jackson

The Tell-Tale Heart: A Musicabre

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story is rightfully one of his best-known – terrifying without being gory, and the writing is creepy yet poetic. Danny Ashkenasi evidently hears not only poetry but also music when he reads the story; this is his setting of it to music, with him as the singer-narrator and three cellists accompanying. The result is moderately engaging; the music is gorgeous, and very rich in the small Cherry Lane studio space, though to my ear Ashkenasi’s singing voice left something to be desired, and anyone who has read the story numerous times is likely to disagree with his choices of tempo, loudness, and melodiousness at some points (the crucial scene of the final night in which the narrator takes an hour to stick his head through the old man’s door comes to mind). The atmosphere onstage, and the sheer intensity of Ashkenasi’s delivery make up part of the difference, but the show remains a short story sung aloud, and though it is certainly an excellent story and the music is good, as I said, it doesn’t really heighten the terror of the writing (which would, admittedly, be hard), and it’s hard not to walk away shrugging your shoulders and kind of wondering what the point was.
Studio at Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St., next show Wed. 8:30pm

Letter Purloined
This show is, simply put, quite amazing. It succeeds on several levels – not only is the gimmick that its structure is based on really nifty, the writing is intelligent but also extremely funny, and the acting is superb. Theater Oobleck, a Neo-Futurist group out of Chicago starts off the madness by distributing handkerchiefs to the first 26 audience members; each kerchief has a letter from the alphabet on it. The cast then retrieves them randomly and puts them up at the back of the stage as they do; the play consists of 26 lettered scenes, which are then performed according to the order the letters went up in. Since there are zillions of different possible orders, if the company is really doing this by the rules then the show will never be performed the same way twice. Maybe it was just the iteration that I saw, or more probably it is by design trumping randomness, but the result was remarkably coherent. The story draws on Shakespeare’s Othello, several stories by Poe (including, of course, The Purloined Letter, a psychoanalysis of Poe’s life, and works by Lacan, Derrida, and Godard; the cast includes Queen Diri (a neurotic working therapist who has revealing sessions with several of the other characters), the not-very-kinglike King Navodar (played by the playwright), Ogai, the King’s slick minister, his wife Ordina, the earnest, soulful Bianca, who is investigating a “slaughter of the innocents,” and General Cassio, who speaks only in the tones of a Casio synthesizer, communicating with others via humming and bleeping songs by Queen and The Who, among others (Colm O’Reilly is fantastic in the part). What does all this add up to? Well, it will depend on the order of scenes you see, since the interpretation of one is so dependent on those around it; as you’ve probably surmised from that statement, and from the list of influences on the show, there’s a lot of Postmodernism in the air, but even if you, like King Navodar hate that movement, or are suspicious of even subtly political theater (once Kofi Annan enters the discussion, the “slaughter of the innocents” is instantly less Biblical- and more America-in-Iraq-sounding), Letter Purloined is just fun to watch. If I could make any more showtimes I would, just to see if I could experience it differently. Sadly, it’s closing tomorrow, but you should try to make it to that performance, and hope that it (and David Isaacson and Theater Oobleck) return to NYC soon.
Henry Street Settlement, 466 Grand St., final performance tomorrow Sun. at 4pm