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Off-Off-Broadway Review

'P.S. Jones and the Frozen City' Riffs on Pop-Culture Epics

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'P.S. Jones and the Frozen City' Riffs on Pop-Culture Epics
Photo Source: Jill Steinberg Photography

For a pile of excrement, the picture painted by “P.S. Jones and the Frozen City” is darn pretty. I speak literally, of course. Robert Askins’ new play opens in a “post post-apocalypse” world that has been divided into the pristine but isolated Frozen City, which floats in the air in a glass blimp, and the great unwashed land beneath it that’s covered in crap. This is the world of the one percent versus the 99 percent blown up into an L. Frank Baum–inspired funhouse. The hero who will unite this broken world—a combination of Dorothy Gale, Luke Skywalker, and Forrest Gump—goes by the name of the stuff he shovels all day long: Pig Shit Jones. The story would be a lot of fun, if only it didn’t have so much to say.

Riffing on the pop-culture epics that continue to feed Hollywood fantasy, the play has an easy-to-follow arc: A nobody stumbles upon a secret that forces him into an adventure he never expected, and in the process he discovers his real strength. Beyond this broad outline, though, the details get murky. There are a lot of characters to follow—including a divine triumvirate made of a great glass spider, a cowboy, and a big-handed builder named Lothar—and an elaborate backstory that’s delivered with too much hurry and fragmentation. It’s as though Askins started writing “The Hobbit” but couldn’t wait to stuff “The Lord of the Rings” inside of it; his charming and imaginative story becomes bloated and unintentionally self-important.

Director José Zayas is committed to keeping the proceedings fiercely light-footed, remaining true to Askins’ vision as he wrestles with the final product. The cast is in it to win it, addressing the audience as often as possible to make sure that we are enjoying ourselves too. Many of the actors whose work I have seen before give their best performances here. These include Sofia Jean Gomez, who as the spider puts the wickedest of female villains to shame; Jenny Seastone Stern, who mines comic gold out of two mostly unnecessary roles; and Joe Paulik, whose Pig Shit is charming, funny, and adorably sympathetic at every turn.

The physical production combines two-dimensional cartoon-style pieces by scenic designer Jason Simms, imaginative puppets from Eric Wright and the Puppet Kitchen, and fast-moving animated backdrops delivered by Alex Koch, David Tennent, and Kate Freer of Imaginary Media Artists. What’s most impressive about these elements is how seamlessly they intertwine, creating a seductive spectacle out of the plot’s many twists and tangents.

Askins brings to “P.S. Jones” the same combination of wild imagination, ironic playfulness, and a willingness to tap into contemporary culture’s latent mythologies that made his “Hand to God” such a revelation last season. His current play asks whether such old-fashioned stories can offer anything more than nostalgic escape from today’s political landscape. His question might have been more relevant if he hadn’t forgotten the golden rule of the epic: elaborate worlds, simple plots.

Presented by terraNOVA Collective at the New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher St., NYC. Dec. 10–23. (800) 838-3006, www.brownpapertickets.com, or www.terranovacollective.org.

Critic’s Score: B

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