Cats Talk Back

Presented by get-out-of-yale-free productions in partnership with FringeNYC as part of the seventh annual New York International Fringe Festival at The Kraine Theater, 85 E. Fourth St., NYC, Aug. 8-24.

Not to pussyfoot around, but "Cats Talk Back" is a winner. Structured as a panel discussion with five purported ex-cast members of a certain long-running musical, the work is, in fact, a tightly written play by Bess Wohl (who also directs), and features alumni from the Yale School of Drama. The sharply satirical play was originally produced at the Yale Cabaret in 2001.

Based, in part, on interviews with real "Cats" cast members, Wohl has fashioned a delicious take on not only the "Cats" phenomenon, but acting and theatre overall. The result is genuinely funny, poignant, and observant.

The performances are perfectly drawn: Jackson Gay as the fragile Monique, whose hands have calcified into claws after 18 years in the show; Frank Liotti as the scarily intense, methody Hector; Brad Heberlee as the overly verbose, intellectualizing Stephen; Bridget Flanery as the enthusiastic Bonnie who joined the company nine months before it closed; and Derek Milman as the vulnerable Reed, a former Mungojerrie now an emotional cripple without his Rumpelteazer. Each one is given several terrific moments to shine.

An "impromptu" performance of an alleged cut number from "Cats," a number where the cats maul a four-year-old girl to death, is an hilarious spot-on send-up (by composer Michael Friedman) of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The "panel" is "moderated" by Jesse McKinley of The New York Times, whose presence might suggest the panel is real, but there are even plants in the audience, including an unbalanced fan, an animal activist, and a "Les Miz" alumnus. All are exceedingly well executed, too.

There are plenty of in-jokes about "Cats," but there's enough universality here to have wide appeal. Apart from its short length (one hour), there's nothing to prevent "Cats Talk Back" from taking on the mantra of its forbear: "now and forever."