2006_08_arts_hugging.jpgReviewing shows in the very first days of the Fringe Festival is always a little hazardous, what with so many kinks that need to be worked out (if not in the show itself, in the Fringe management). But we wanted to report to you early on about what to see and what not to see, overlooking glitches as best we could, at least as far as they appeared to be early-run problems rather than real issues with the shows themselves. Below you’ll find brief review of seven productions that represent most of the spectrum of show types at the Fringe; none of these are really “must-sees,” but some are definitely worth checking out if you can, and the festival is still young – we’ll have more reviews next weekend and dispatches from the Fringe frontlines during the two weeks it’s on. Reviews for this week, in order of when we saw the shows, are of:
Open House; Nutmeat: A Fairytale Burlesque; House; The French Defense; The Bicycle Men; Hugging the Shoulder; and The Day the Universe Came Closer. Complete schedules and tickets for all are located on the Fringe listing site.

Open House
I had high hopes for this show, since Partial Comfort is actually an established company, at least relative to a lot of Fringe Productions, and they’ve gotten good reviews for recent off-off works. But Ross Maxwell’s play about a disturbed family trying to stay afloat amidst all the detritus of modern suburban life disappointed. One of the main problems is Maxwell’s own too-high ambition: he attempts to fit in a bunch of different complex themes and the plot simply won’t support them all, so none of them comes through very well. Then there’s the casting: Bill Dawes and Cynthia Silver are supposed to be the middle-aged parents of a 12-year-old, but their young looks really get in the way of that idea (it doesn’t help that the daughter is played by an adult, Bess Rous, whose affected lisp and pretend-grown-up manners are irritating at first but grow on you). Dawes and Silver are Alistair and Beverly, whose marriage has gone cold; Alistair, an aging Narcissus who takes a little too much interest in the neighbors’ son Alex, is nowhere near on the same wavelength as Beverly, who cares only about the hideous patriotic display on the neighbors’ lawn, which she worries will prevent anyone from buying her house. Playing Alex as well as Sylvia’s imaginary friend Dick, Greg Keller gives the show’s stand-out performance, shifting emotional gears as transparently as a 15-year-old does to appear both vulnerable and vindictive, then matching Sylvia’s affectations to bring the fey Dick to life. Maxwell brings in homophobia, the war on terror, divisive domestic red-blue politics, the real estate bubble, and other of-the-moment issues into play, but though they fizz up at first, the show is bogged down with the sum of them by the end so they don’t have the power they should individually or collectively, and it’s hard to take much from it.
(Access Theater, 380 Broadway; next performance Wed. 5:30pm)

Nutmeat: A Fairytale Burlesque
This physical comedy from French-American troupe Sous Un Autre Angle is quite charming in a sad, slightly grotesque way, and so far has been my favorite Fringe show. Written by Megan Campisi with the three main actors, it tells the story of Ramon Martinez, a puppeteer not really worthy of the title, and his wife and son who are cowed and starving due to his insistence on continuing with the family profession which isn’t earning anything. He tries to stage fairytales, but something always goes wrong to ruin the show, and it’s quickly clear that the Martinez’ own story is the real fairytale – of the dark, anxious Grimm Brothers sort (though O. Henry’s semi-uplifting “Gift of the Magi” takes a bow too). It’s painful to listen to Caroline Reck play the wife through an ill-fitting pair of fake bad teeth, the songs of the android-like Barbary organ that the son falls in love with are headache-inducing, and at times the slapstick is a little too slow-paced to be pulled off. But the company does so much with minimal set and props, and they strive and sorrow so winningly, that it’s hard not to be drawn to all of the characters, even the imperious Ramon. Nutmeat’s mixture of silly and dark jokes amuses but also cuts to the quick at times, a combination that makes both seem more real and makes the show as a whole rather artfully engaging.
(At Access Theater, 380 Broadway; next performance Tues. 11pm)
More reviews after the jump. Photo from Hugging the Shoulder by Brian Diaz

David Bromley’s play starts from an interesting idea: what if you and your spouse were sitting all happy in your home one winter night, admiring your Christmas tree, and another couple walks in claiming that it is in fact their home? Unfortunately, the combination of a script that veers far from that beginning path to become a muddle of arguments about immigration/nationality and gender relations, and some overacting that makes those debates a little too comical, turn the play into a fairly frustrating exercise that director Handan Ozbilgin doesn't help to sort out. Turkish-American couple Cumhur and Ruya (Luis Galli and Jessica Marie Smith) are the first couple, lounging in their nightclothes; Carmen and Carlos (Mercedes Vasquez and Miguel Belmonte) are the smartly dressed intruders. When the lights go out, the men start fighting and the women, at least temporarily, draw closer together as Carmen preaches female empowerment, but rather than asking the show’s tag line (“Do you know who your neighbors are?”) the audience is more likely to be asking why in the world these people can’t just talk things through rationally to establish what’s going on and let everyone be on their way. Obviously that simple plot point is not the intended focus of the play, but whatever the real aim is supposed to be gets so lost amidst the silliness and half-articulated ideas that it’s hard to let go of that starting point, and not to be slightly maddened by the way it goes utterly unresolved.
(Henry Street Settlement, 466 Grand St.; next performance Thurs. 6:15pm)

The French Defense
This is another play that begins with an intriguing place, though here one would only know about that if one had read playwright Dimitri Raitzin’s note on the back of the program. He came up with the idea to tell the story of the 1960 chess match between world champion Mikhail Botvinnik and upstart Mikhail Tal when he was watching a chess game in Washington Square Park and listening to the guys trash-talk each other; he then imagined how it might be if Botvinnik and Tal had been able to talk so freely in their match. It’s an idea that has great potential – chess can make for surprisingly suspenseful watching – only the play is staged in such a way that much of the suspense is drained. Finite scenes punctuated by classical music playing as the two make their moves at the central chess table, then retreat to their corners or pace while delivering not-very-trash-talky monologues about their training and achievements, don’t allow any momentum to build up. As Tal, Daniel Hendricks Simon is appropriately brash and callow at the same time, his face betraying his fast-changing emotions and rising and falling confidence, but Robert J. D’Amato is fairly wooden as Botvinnik and neither of them works up the kind of passion that one associates with a high-pressure game, especially if it’s going to involve trash-talking (even of a more erudite kind). People who don’t know chess may be drawn in by the question of who will win this particular match, but they are unlikely to see the intended intensity of the game itself that Raitzen indicated he hoped to show.
Henry Street Settlement, 466 Grand St.; next performance Tues. 3:30pm)

The Bicycle Men
In 2004, this utterly absurd yet strangely endearing comedy musical won the excellence in overall production award at the Fringe; it’s back as part of the 10th anniversary’s “alumni program.” I didn’t see it in the original run, and I confess to being slightly bewildered (even more than one would expect to be with the complete insanity that’s onstage) by the widely enthusiastic reception it got that year. Probably the best explanation is just the hardworking cast of four, who also collaborated on the script; Joe Liss, John Rubano, and Mark Nutter all play multiple deranged characters, while Dave Lewman stands in for the audience as Steve, the overwhelmed American who just wants to get his bike fixed as he travels through France. In order to do so, he has to descend into a world of surly, strange French townspeople that is itself apparently ruled over, in a way, by L’Homme du Bicyclette. The trials Steve goes through on his overnight stay are beyond me to describe here, and it’s probably best just to see it anyway; even if you don’t necessarily like absurdist stuff, the relentless high energy of these four guys from LA may win you over with their insane, head-scratching hilarity at least this once.
(The Village Theatre, 158 Bleecker St.; next performance 8/20 at 7:30pm)

Hugging the Shoulder

Sam Dingman and Brian Floyd are well cast in this highly dramatic play by Jerrod Bogard. Dingman plays twenty-something Derrick, an earnest yet slightly soft young guy who has forced his older brother Jeremy (Floyd) into the backseat of his van and taken him on a road trip with no pit stops, as a sort of impromptu crash detox program after Derrick discovers Jeremy’s drug habit. The play flips back and forth between an undefined time in the past when the two brothers would get drunk together and play guitar and spill their hearts to each other, and the trip itself, with Jeremy’s writhing sickness as his body flushes out the drugs, and Derrick’s own rising feverishness as he tries to come to terms with what is happening. Sean Boat’s ingenious set, in which the van’s seat and dashboard come apart to become a living room and rotate by way of a circular rug lifted and turned by stagehands, helps this flashback scheme, but it is still at times a little confusing to try to determine exactly what is happening, and the surprise twist at the ending forces you to go back and reconfigure events in your mind all over again. The play would benefit from trimming (for instance, we don’t need to see Jeremy vomiting and shivering for quite so long, and Derrick delivers a couple too many incomprehensible anguished monologues). On the other hand, as Jeremy’s troubled girlfriend Christy, Jane Petrov is effective as far as her role goes, but it needs fleshing out and weaving in. Like Open House (and many Fringe plays, for that matter) Hugging the Shoulder is a rough sketch with some flashes that impress and show what those involved are capable of, but it’s not quite there yet.
(Henry St. Settlement, 466 Grand St.; next performance tonight 8/13 at 10pm)

The Day the Universe Came Closer

The contents of Hiram Pines’ solo show take it pretty far from most definitions you’ll hear of theatre, but then that’s the case with so many productions anymore, even those with casts and seeming plots that make more of a gesture toward play-ness – so where do you draw the line? That’s the sort of question Pines would ask, if he weren’t more interested in bigger ideas like the nature of sight and the composition of the universe and the origin of rectangles. Over the course of eleven brief scenes, Pines gives a seemingly stream-of-thought presentation of his musings on these matters and more – the kinds of things, my friend commented, that might run through your head as you lie sleepless at night, or while sprawled on a hill on a nice summer day staring at the sky, and Pines’ manner suggests that he would be the kind of person you could talk with about them over coffee for hours. He has a few props and a scene with the recorded voices of the “Masters of the Universe,” and the scenes are demarcated by blackouts, but for the most part it’s no more and no less than Pines’ deeply felt, if sometimes off-the-wall, ponderings. If you’re looking for a show that has at least gestures toward plot and character, his performance definitely isn’t for you, but if you’re OK with going outside the theatre box and enjoy puzzling over why things are the way they are, you can’t go wrong with this unique show.
(The Players Loft, 115 MacDougal St.; next performance tonight 8/13 at 8:30pm)