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REVIEWS: Theatre

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Bruce Vilanch: Almost Famous

Reviewed by David Sheward

Presented by Westbeth Theatre Center and Joan Hyler, at the Westbeth Theatre Center, 151 Bank St., NYC, May 11-June 10.

"Hello, I'm Linda Tripp. The makeover didn't quite take." So begins the delightfully nasty solo show "Bruce Vilanch: Almost Famous," starring the bearded, somewhat zaftig "Hollywood Square" and comedy scribbler to the stars. This caustic writer-performer makes his living by penning gags for every award show and celebrity benefit known to man, as well as creating acts for the likes of Bette Midler, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Donnie and Marie, etc. The list is endless. From "Abba to Zadora," he jokes, "not two acts you want to be remembered for."

In this show Vilanch entertains with tales of his toiling in the "comedy gulag." He details his journey from child actor and model ("I was a junior husky") to reporter for The Chicago Tribune to gagman to the rich and famous. Along the way he's acted with Tallulah Bankhead in summer stock and ventured behind the scenes at the infamously bad "Brady Bunch Variety Hour." His backstage anecdotes are a treasure to the celebrity-conscious. You'll howl at his response to Donnie Osmond calling him a Muppet and guffaw in shock at Paul Lynde's drunken antics when the two flew to Salt Lake City every week to tape the Osmonds' wholesome TV show.

Vilanch is not afraid of a dirty joke or of being politically incorrect. His lashing humor is refreshingly honest, puncturing the foibles and pretensions of the luminaries from whom he makes big bucks. Most theatrical stand-up comedy efforts are 90 minutes without a break; Vilanch has added a second act and takes written questions from the audience. On the night attended, his answers were just as funny as his scripted material.

Scott Wittman is listed as director. It's hard to tell where his contribution began and Vilanch's left off, but the pacing and tempo are perfect. James Schuette designed the simple set, festooned with Vilanch's trademark T-shirts. Dick Gallagher provided the professional musical direction and accompaniment.

Eurydice

Reviewed by Irene Backalenick

Presented by The Storm Theatre, at 145 W. 46th St., NYC, May 12-June 3.

The Storm Theatre has taken on the daunting task of staging Jean Anouilh's "Eurydice." As the playwright moves back and forth, in and out of reality, he poses a heavy-at times insurmountable-challenge to this little Off-Broadway company.

Anouilh offers his unique take on the Orpheus-Eurydice myth in this 1942 "black" drama, using it to put forth his own philosophy. As Anouilh sees it, life is filled with deception, deterioration, cruelties, and crassness. Nothing of value survives-certainly not innocence or young love. Only in death is beauty eternalized. (It is a favorite Anouilh theme, but developed more effectively in his "Antigone, written two years after "Eurydice.")

The play's opening act is dull, talky, expository, and this production does little to lift it out of the doldrums. But even in this act there are compensations. Peter Soave's haunting accordian music helps to suggest the French caf scene. And two mimes (Maryanne Chaney and Peter Mantia) perform a stiff, marionette-like pas de deux that reflects the Anouilh view. (We are all powerless puppets whose strings are pulled by fate.) And director John Regis' use of freeze frames provides further interest, as does a mysterious patron, slouched in one corner, a brimmed hat hiding his face. But it is a sluggish scene all the same.

The second act, however, heats up considerably, in terms of story and performances. For one thing, the stranger (played with chilling effect by Jimmy Flannery) assumes an active role. He turns out to be, not surprisingly, Death himself. This is a gentle, soft-spoken Death, but Death nonetheless-and one who offers Orpheus a hazardous way to reunite with his love. Christian Conn and Tiffany Weigel, as the appealing young lovers, come into their own in these latter scenes. The chemistry between them finally works. And Larry Picard, as the obsequious Waiter, adds a delicious note of menace.

The Song of Songs

Reviewed by Irene Backalenick

Presented by The Archer Stage, at Greenwich Street Theatre, 547 Greenwich St., NYC, May 9-20.

An amiable group of young people is now staging "The Song of Songs," at the Greenwich Street Theatre. Writer-director Daniel Goldstein has based his piece on Sholom Aleichem's story of the same name. It was the Yiddish writer's only love story, which in turn looked to the Biblical "Song of Songs" for inspiration.

As to the story, a boy and girl, seemingly siblings, are raised in a traditional Jewish home. But they are not quite brother and sister. As Shimek, the boy, explains again and again, "I had an older brother, and he was drowned in the river. He left a baby, and we grew up together. We loved each other like a brother and sister."

Inevitably, these innocents fall in love. This story of star-crossed lovers is dramatized and interspersed with song and movement. Its weakest link, unfortunately, is the banal dialogue between Shimek and the girl, Buzie. (Who is to blame-translator Curt Leviant, or playwright Goldstein? It is hard to say.) In any event, the strongest, most poetic moments come from the Biblical passages-such as "My sister, my bride, is a locked garden..."

The production is a shoestring operation, told with the simplest of props and staging, which is all to the good. In David Korins' set, boards are raised from the floor, to create trees, hills, and streams. The production is further enhanced by the haunting music of Michael Friedman and the choreography of Kara Martinez-Weilding. The slow, mesmerizing movements of the ensemble add richness to the tale and bring the shtetl to life.

Of the performers, Rachel Jacobs and Patrick Mellen are first rate as the parents, and Jesse Hawks acquits himself creditably as Shimek. His playful scenes with the girl Buzie (Sandy Rustin) are at times charming.

Whatever the flaws of his play, Daniel Goldstein is to be commended for taking on the double challenge of Sholom Aleichem and the Bible.

Beethoven's 10th

Reviewed by Jane Hogan

Presented by First Run Theatre, at the Phil Bosakowski Theatre, 354 W. 45th St., NYC, May 5-21.

"Beethoven's 10th," the final production of First Run Theatre's premiere season, is a family affair, with Ron Jacoby directing his son, Dan Jacoby, in nephew Bruce Jacoby's comedic play. It's a sincere, by-the-books story about a frustrated artist type who has turned his back on the family retail business and his marriage to pursue his music. Casper, played by Dan Jacoby (who is also First Run's artistic director), is a 39-year-old man obsessed with composing Beethoven's 10th symphony. Each night for the past two years he has dreamt the entire composition, only to forget all but the first 16 bars upon waking up. As the play opens, Casper lives on the Lower East Side in a small, very messy studio apartment; his wife, tired of his obsessive behavior, has moved Uptown.

The piece plays like an extended sitcom; indeed, it would be better off on television: For one thing, the slight piece cannot sustain its extended scene changes (one of which might very well be longer than the scene following it). The character of Gretchen, Casper's estranged wife, is broadly written and misconceived. (Though she aspires to a more "Uptown" lifestyle, she continually returns to Casper for fairly unconvincing reasons.) Lisa Bansavage seems somewhat uncomfortable in the role (most likely the fault of the writing), though she rallies and hits her stride in Act Two.

Herb Duncan does a very funny turn as Casper's businessman father, and Jacoby is just fine as Casper. As Susan, who falls in love with Casper, Amy Lee Pearsall delivers a charming, grounded performance that is far above the level of the material with which she is working.

Scene and lighting design by Tim Golebiewski and Cathy Braasch, respectively, are fine. The play features nicely composed original music by Stephen B. Negri.

The Rivals

Reviewed by Glenda Frank

Presented by the Acting Company, at the Playhouse at St. Clement's Church, 423 W. 46th St., NYC, May 2-May 9.

Oh, the pity of the short run. The Acting Company, John Houseman's thirtysomething brainchild that trains actors and builds new audiences as it tours America, has put on a production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals" that makes you want to call your friends and say, "Now that's how it should be done. From the lucid plot lines-and this can be a most confusing tale of quixotic lovers-and sharp diction, to the clever eye-candy of the set designs (Alexander Dodge) and costumes (Michael Krass), to the gifted cast, this "Rivals" is not to be missed.

This 18-century spoof of romantic love is fueled by deception. The charismatic Matt Anderson plays wealthy Captain Absolute, who pretends to be Ensign Beverly to win the beautiful Lydia Languish (Angela Pierce), whose perverse notion of affection includes privation. Lydia's discovery of her arranged engagement to Absolute in his real persona throws the lovers into a flurry of comical dismay: He panics about being caught in a lie and she thinks her true passion for Ensign Beverly is doomed. The parental figures are just as silly: Sir Anthony Absolute (bravo to Andrew McGinn) takes immoderate pleasure in thoughts of his son's honeymoon, and the famous Mrs. Malaprop (Michelle Tauber), in a delicious mangle of English, courts (by letter) an Irish firebrand (Jeff Swarthout) who thinks she's Lydia. Meanwhile the sexy, clever servant (April Yvette Thompson) is amassing a small fortune as go-between.

Two other actors stand out. Johnathan Uffelman's Bob Acres, a clueless rival to Absolute, plays with promising excessives the country squire turned city fop. In the small role of David, Royden Mills' surprising phrasing and Three Stooges' routine wakes up the finale when the suitors gather to duel over Lydia and the women rush to restore peace.

Director Nicholas Martin merits high praise, but with a reminder that the finest comedy has many pockets of intoxicating, totally unruly zaniness.

The Macy's Account

Reviewed by Jessica Daniels

Self-presented, Wednesdays at 7 pm at The Duplex Cabaret, 61 Christopher St., NYC, May 3 24.

On one of her requisite visits to the largest department store in the world, spoiled Staten Island princess Brie Cantwell falls in love at first sight for a-you guessed it!-Norwegian perfume-squirter. He happens to be dating the most popular girl from her high school, prom-queen-turned-Jeopardy-champ, Anna Yakamoto. In order to sway his affections, Brie figures that she, too, must become a game show diva, and squirms her way onto "The New $10,000 Pyramid." While Brie's attempt is made in vain, she does walk away with a trip to Acapulco. Oddly enough, this consolation prize-cum-Mexican-misadventure reveals the life-altering catalyst Brie so desperately needs.

You might assume, and correctly, that "The Macy's Account," the one-woman show described above, is full of oomph and one-liners. Co-penned by Sherri Langsam (who plays Brie) and Jason Schafer (of last year's fabulous runaway indie "Trick"), the humor is both biting and bittersweet. Actress Langsam's tireless enthusiasm and energy keep us revved, although aspects of her portrayal leave something to be desired. Her Southampton deb accent suggests anything but a New York borough Jewish girl, and while comfortable with the words, she is somewhat physically restricted on stage. Essentially, Langsam comes across more as an actress than a comedienne, and due to the outrageousness of the material, she sometimes falls flat. Much is picked up by clever lighting, narrative slides, brilliant sound design and effective direction by Alfredo Galvàn.

So, while we hardly come to great life epiphanies by watching Brie's struggle, we are gratified when she finally puts her foot down and takes charge (of her life, that is, and not daddy's credit cards). Finally, she shows signs of maintaining control by curbing her affections for Mr. Wrong and claiming her future as an independent, working woman-where else, but in the Macy's perfume department. The show, by any account, is a night of ludicrous, good fun.

Lucrece

Reviewed by Karl Levett

Presented by the Willow Cabin Theatre Company, at the Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster St., NYC, May 12-June 4.

"I will sink from sight...serenely," says Lucrece (Linda Powell) after her violation by Tarquin (David Paluck). The same might be said of this play by Thornton Wilder, translated from Le Viol De Lucrece, the French drama by Andr Obey, itself based on Shakespeare's famous poem. First presented on Broadway in 1932 as a vehicle for Katharine Cornell and then titled The Rape of Lucrece, it was deemed a failure by all concerned, including Wilder. One critic was rude enough to call it "uncomfortably dull." So it seems an odd choice for the Willow Cabin Theatre Company to resurrect this curiosity and seek to give it new life. Its most favorable aspect is its suitability as a "company play," featuring as it does a variety of good roles for a large number of performers.

But unlike he does in his best work, Wilder has no original concept for the telling of this well-known inevitable tale. His only conceit, late in the play, is to have his two Narrators (Maria Radman and Larry Gleason) consider for a moment to alter the story towards a happier ending. Despite the occasional stab at poetic imagery, Wilder's treatment throughout is truly prosaic, in every sense of the word. Awkward stumbling between the formality of historical drama and twentieth century accessibility pervades the work.

This ancient-modern transition is also a problem that director Edward Berkeley had to consistently reckon with. He is helped by John Kasarda's pristine setting, well lit by Matt McCarthy. His cast exists in both worlds; some performers even have a foot in each camp. Powell is a dignified if distinctly modern Lucrece, while both Radman and Gleason prove vital and well-spoken Narrators. John Bolger's Collatine and Christine Radman's Emilia are also commendable.

Footnote: Meganne George's inventive costume design dispenses with shoes, throwing undue emphasis on what's afoot in Rome.

Two-Headed

Reviewed by Elias Stimac

Presented by Women's Project & Productions, at Women's Project Theatre, 424 W. 55th St., NYC, May 3-28.

Under the majestic tree that is the centerpiece of David P. Gordon's picturesque setting, a pair of Mormon women share a lifetime of friendship and hardship in Julie Jensen's new drama "Two-Headed."

Currently in its New York premiere at Women's Project Theatre, the 75-minute play is made up of five scenes, each one skipping ahead a decade to check in on the relationship between two southern Utah women. This "play of history" does indeed offer a historical as well as personal perspective of its two main characters, spanning 40 years from 1857 to 1897.

Examining a variety of issues including compatibility, trust, and the emotional strain of polygamy, Jensen has crafted a patchwork of poetry and wisdom in her play. Childhood friends Lavinia (Deirdre O'Connell) and Hettie (Lizbeth Mackay) may fuss and fight, but always stick together in the end, despite the passage of time. The regular jumps from scene to scene occasionally hamper the momentum of the individual scenes, but the constant themes of survival and togetherness are powerful throughout.

Joan Vail Thorne's stalwart direction is alternately gentle and firm, just the right touch for the dual concept of "two-headedness" that is explored in the script. Likewise, O'Connell and Mackay expertly find the right balance of tenderness and harshness in their respective characters, whether they are playing 10 years old or middle-age.

Complementing Gordon's glorious set design, the rest of the creative team also helps Thorne and company spin a magical mood. Michael Lincoln has lit the production with a sensitive touch, costume designer Carrie Robbins helps delineate the maturing of the characters with subtle changes, and composer Scott Killian creates a stirring sound design to accompany the action.

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