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September 12, 2014

This Mustn’t Be the Place

Even a painting that’s a masterpiece looks diminished if it isn’t in the right frame.

Similarly speaking, a good play or musical -- even if it’s wonderfully performed, directed and designed -- must be in the right theater for maximum impact.

MY FAVORITE YEAR, Ahrens and Flaherty’s 1992 musical of the movie of the same name, would have done better if it had not been staged at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. A thrust stage doesn’t serve an old-fashioned musical, which MY FAVORITE YEAR is in the best sense of the word. The show needs the classic look of a proscenium, so when The York Theatre Company does MY FAVORITE YEAR as one of its Musicals in Mufti (December 5-7), I predict the show will be right at home and automatically seem brighter and better.

RED EYE OF LOVE is an above-average-sized off-Broadway musical with three principals, seven ensemble members and two pianos. And yet, the stage at Dicapo Opera Theatre on East 76th Street is still too large for it. The onstage pianos are far removed from the actors and even when all 10 performers are center stage, there’s so much room on each side of them that the show seems lost.

Although a lofty-sounding venue called The Dicapo Opera Theatre sounds pretty rococo, the place is actually modern and sterile (which, to be fair, also means clean and commodious). However, because RED EYE OF LOVE is set in the early decades of the 20th century – allowing Sam Davis to write some wonderfully evocative music -- it would play better in a theatre built long ago.

The show is absurdist, and every now and then a non-sequitur will get you to laugh. Thanks to two choreographers, we see that dancing cows have come a long way since Caroline in GYPSY. They are not the only reason why RED EYE is not for vegetarians; big slabs of pork and beef are paraded across the stage to indicate the multi-story meat-only store that O.O. Martinas has built.

All the talk of meat is disgusting. STRIKE UP THE BAND closed out of town when it centered on cheese -- and then met success when a rewrite changed the substance to more delectable chocolate. RED EYE should have concocted a confection that makes it sweeter.

Obviously, the wealthy O.O. will attract Selma Chargesse (the extraordinary Alli Mauzey), which will make matters hard for poor Wilmer Flange. (Wouldn’t anyone named Wilmer Flange have to be poor?) Josh Grisetti plays the victim with charm and resolute backbone and Kevin Pariseau amuses, especially given that Martha Bromelmeier has costumed him to look like Monopoly’s Uncle Pennybags. Let’s hope the show moves to the Cherry Lane.

Having a bigger problem with its theater is Caroline Prugh’s IT’S ONLY KICKBALL, STUPID. In fact, The Hartley House isn’t a theater, but a big room with a high ceiling. The acoustics are atrocious, as the sound wafts upward and we can’t make out words, which is especially damaging for a very talky play.

Prugh and Fitzgerald probably didn’t notice, because they know every word of the drama, but we don’t. Three-quarters of the time, many of the four performers can’t be understood because director Adam Fitzgerald has staged the play in a square. The audience provides the perimeter, seated at tables on which crayons are provided. Good; it gives us something to do -- color -- when we can’t hear what’s going on.

What’s more, adults play children, so much of the time Lori Prince (Fiona), Autumn Hurlbert (Margo), Debargo Sanyal (Ian) and Eric T. Miller (Henry) must adopt artificial voices that make the words even more difficult to discern. Because kids natively speak very quickly, Fitzgerald has his performers do that, which totally sinks any possibility of gleaning what anyone’s saying.

The language that comes across best is the body language when Prince and Hurlbert play middle-school girls; they are, as the expression goes, “all arms and legs.” No matter which way they turned, we could see that.

What I COULD hear of the play seemed solid. Fiona’s crush on Margo builds in both her mind and body, but she doesn’t dare say anything to her. When they get together many years later, Fiona hopes that Margo has been harboring the same feelings and was equally shy about the love that dare not speak its name.

They are, by the way, children of the ‘80s, so Prugh’s implication may be that for all the advances that gay men have made in the last 30 or so years, gay women haven’t been as out or vocal. But of course from having heard only 25% of IT’S ONLY KICKBALL, STUPID, for all I know, it might be about a senate race in Wyoming.

You’ve heard the term “clickbait” – meaning a website’s dazzling info website that entices you to grab your mouse and double-click to see what it’s all about? Now David M. deLeon and Esther Ko have chosen CLICKBAIT as the name of their play.

They ask you to do what every other theater asks you not to: keep your smartphone ON during the show. You’ll use it to join the CLICKBAIT chat rooms as well as read the instructions and information that, thanks to six computers, will help you enjoy the show. (In the unlikely event that you DON’T have a smartphone, you can follow the action on two plasma TV screens.)

So as I gaze at my iPhone 5s, I think, “Well, if the show stinks, I will be able to see from my phone just how much time has passed and how much I’ll have to endure” – for I’ve been told in advance that CLICKBAIT weighs in at 1:40.

Because the houselights remain on, too, I’m able to see and grin broadly at CLICKBAIT’S most fascinating aspect. The story and acting are so compelling that not long into the first act, both the spectators and I are no longer mesmerized by our smartphones but are intently watching real people deal with real life. Humans, 1; Smartphones, 0.

We’ve all been victims in our time, but Antonia (also Ms. Ko, who’s amazing) is an especially odd one. A reporter on her college’s newspaper wrote that she’d committed suicide – but she didn’t. Antonia has, however, had a really hard time of it, especially with the same issue that Fiona had in KICKBALL. This suicide may well turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, despite the efforts of friends and acquaintances (including the fetching Macy Idzakovich).

But the venue! The MOST inappropriately named Access Theatre, is easily the hardest facility in the city to access. To reach this fourth floor space, you must climb more than six dozen steps. Oh, you do have the option of taking an elevator which is about 200 steps away and around the corner. But make certain that your smart (or ignorant) phone is charged, because you must first call a number listed on the front door in order for someone to come, fetch you, walk you to that elevator, use the security key that runs the thing and take you up.

Why would anyone want to rent this space? If its landlords are charging more than $1.50 a night, they’re robbing their tenants.
The room is blisteringly hot, too. Computers once needed to be in cool surroundings, but I guess that that’s changed over time. But people still need to feel cool on a hot summer’s night.

At least CLICKBAIT does show a dynamic reason why it requires a fourth floor. But as Sweet Charity, Nickie and Helene sing, “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.” Isn’t there another room in the city that costs as little as this sty and is easier to access? There MUST be.

Meanwhile, BOYS AND GIRLS knows its place. On stage are four actors who sit on or stand in front of four chairs. Here I don’t have to ask “Why don’t you pick out a theater your own size?” for it’s in one of the 99-seat theaters at 59E59. Unfortunately, Dylan Coburn Gray’s play – a series of monologues, really – bores. That’s surprising, given that it’s all about sex, a subject in which many theatergoers take an intense interest. I guess this proves that ultimately the place isn’t the thing, but the play is.

         — Peter Filichia

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