Thursday, December 3, 2009

Discount Theater Review

posted by David

This past weekend, as I sometimes do, I treated myself to a whirlwind attendance of theater productions. Previous commitments had kept me away from the boards for a few weeks so I had a bit of catch-up to do on several recent productions.

Logging into my trusty discount membership with Theatre Development Fund, I managed to catch three very different plays over Saturday and Sunday and I thought I would share my thoughts on each.

"I shall tell you an amusing story"

I attended a Saturday matinee performance of In the Next Room, a new play by Sarah Ruhl. Its full title is In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, and yes, vibrators feature significantly in the tale. The story, however, takes place in the mid 1800's and the vibrator in question is considered a therapeutic device used, quite naively, by doctors who treat women with "hysteria." These women arrive high strung and stressed and rocked by see-sawing emotions. They are taken into the examination room and a vibrating device is applied to their "nether" regions to help remove - according to the doctor's diagnosis - the excess fluid that is the assumed cause of their mental distress. The machine creates "paroxysms" in the patients (quite harmless, they are told), and after treatment they find themselves calmer, flushed and much more relaxed.

Yes, there is quite a bit of comedy milked (no pun intended) from this disconnect between what is actually being provided to these women and what is perceived as being done to them. In addition, the vibrating technique is not used solely on female patients. A male heterosexual patient, a young artist suffering physical distress from the emotional fallout of a failed love affair, is also treated. In his case, the equipment is applied to his prostate and he, too, experiences "paroxysms" after which he finds himself much improved.

While often humorous, the play also poignantly addresses the issues of the marginalization and the general dismissal of women as complete human beings in society. The suffocating lives they live are subtly but searingly outlined by the plot, as well as the general disconnect from their bodies that both men and women endured during that time period. The performances are excellent by all in a cast led by Michael Cerveris and Laura Benanti.

"Cry all you want, you'll pee less"

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, as I am often wont to do, I followed this matinee performance (after a dash to the gym to work off some holiday excess) with Carrie Fisher's one-woman show - Wishful Drinking .

This is an autobiographical show in which this iconic figure, who had her heyday in the late '70's and early '80's, fills in the blanks surrounding the scandal plagued life she has lived: her famous parents, her marriages and addictions, her experiences as a child of Hollywood and her careers as actress, author and poster-child for substance abuse.

Ms. Fisher is in fine form throughout the evening and provides many clever anecdotes about her life, wringing laughs from stories that in lesser hands could have been maudlin at best and depressing at worst. She is definitely entertaining although I must admit I found the production somewhat less hilarious than many others in the audience. I find I can be winked at just so many times before it starts to get wearisome. Still, there were quite a few priceless zingers to be mined amongst the Costco-like piles of jokey stories that abounded throughout the evening. And the fact that Ms. Fisher is having such a fantastic time on stage definitely lends itself to the enjoyment of the evening.

"We few, we happy few"

My final show for the weekend was the Sunday matinee performance of Love Child, a two-man multi-character farce the catapults you through the production of an off-off-off Broadway show. It flips from backstage to frontstage to the audience and back again, with the two actors portraying a bewildering range of characters. First let me say that the two actors, Daniel Jenkins and Robert Stanton, are impressive in their ability to shift in a split-second from character to character and setting to setting. The range of ages and ethnicities and body types, let alone sound effects and props, that they conjure up without aid of costume changes whatsoever is truly remarkable.

That said, I found the play far too overstuffed with surprises and twists and reveals for my liking. Even forewarned as I was about how the play was set up, it was a real challenge to keep up with who was who, where we were location-wise, where we were in the chronology of the play, and just what the hell was going on. The mishaps that continually befell almost every character portrayed kept piling up to near Babel-like heights and they strained one's credulity. I felt bad not loving this play, as the actors really give you 110% in their performances, but the level of silliness just exceeded my tolerance levels after a point.

In summary, I would say if you want a beautiful, thoughtful yet funny and moving play, check out In the Next Room. If you have a hankering from some raucous celebrity entertainment grafted onto stand-up comedy, Wishful Drinking is your best bet. If you want to go out on a limb, see some truly elastic performances and stray off the beaten path, then have a Love Child.

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