The half of the show that works takes place in the present and concerns a 42-year-old man coping with life as a Thalidomide survivor. Born with shortened arms because his mother took the drug when she was pregnant, our protagonist, Duncan, is singing in a London cabaret club and becoming romantically involved with a female doctor. But talk about issues: Bitter (who wouldn't be?) and emotionally defensive (hardly a surprise), Duncan is a complex and sensitive man. In scenes with his sister and his new girlfriend, that complexity and sensitivity are well expressed in the writing and the performances.
It helps that Duncan is played by real-life Thalidomide survivor Mat Fraser; he is deformed, with arms that he calls "flippers." The surprise is that, in this large-cast production, Fraser is the best actor on stage. After all, there is a miniscule pool of deformed actors to draw upon for this rolet, while there are tens of thousands who could play the others. For the record, some of the featured actors are also very talented -- and some are decidedly not. One might be tempted to blame the strikingly uneven performances for the show's failures, but this is only a contributing factor. The real culprit is author Willett, who adds a stunningly inept fantasy element to his story: He brings a wide array of characters into play, characters who are connected to Duncan's life in various ways. Among them are his late mother and father, plus Duncan and his sister as children. Also making appearances are historical figures who are part of the sad history of Thalidomide.
The history of the drug is fascinating, but not in this format. When an American woman enters, announces that she's arrived via a time warp, and says that she's anxious to watch an episode of The Big Valley on TV, it isn't just the tone of the play that's changed; it's the mental acuity of the playwright. Where was the director, Eliza Beckwith? She must shoulder some of the blame for not quashing this terrible idea. Happily, we then return to the present, and some of these scenes are emotionally searing. Case in point: The sex and nudity in The Flid Show is compelling, and there's a powerful scene wherein Duncan's girlfriend shows him a bottle of Thalidomide. (It turns out that the pill has come out of the dungeon of the past to be touted as a modern-day wonder drug.) The scene that ensues could make a stone weep; the combination of Fraser's performance and Willett's suddenly brilliant writing makes for a shattering theatrical moment.
Karen Walsh is gritty and real as Duncan's sister, Brenda. Kim Donovan is wonderfully vulnerable as Rachel, Duncan's new girlfriend, and Christa Scott-Reed is most effective as his beleaguered mother. The Flid Show is largely a mess -- but when it works, it's breathtaking.
There is a mountain in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days. In the current revival of the play by the Worth Street Theater Company, set designer David P. Gordon has impressively built the mountain; infortunately, in a metaphoric sense, director Jeff Cohen has not quite managed to climb it.
In what we assume was an attempt to make Beckett's dark comedy more accessible and entertaining, Cohen has directed the gifted comedian Lea DeLaria to play the play's main character, Winnie, with broad comic brio as she sinks ever deeper into the mountain. If you listen closely, you'll hear a Bette Davis impression -- and the cartoon rooster Foghorn Leghorn makes a number of vocal appearances as well.
DeLaria is working hard to entertain but this play rests on the vulnerability of Winnie, not on her emotional resourcefulness. It's a savage, uncompromising piece about our pathetic attempts to survive in a world that can (literally) bury us. Winnie has to be real and heartbreaking, yet Cohen has directed DeLaria to be anything but. And she's pretty much the whole play; David Greenspan is her husband, Willie, but his role is very small. In short, this production is misconceived.
The Nature of Jazz
Frank Fontana's new show at Danny's Skylight Room is titled Natural Jazz and, given the fact that all of his songs are connected to nature, it's only fitting that his style is breezy.
It would have been very easy to go wrong with a show like this. A singer will often insist upon a theme that then becomes a creative straitjacket, forcing him/her to pick songs that fit the concept rather than his/her personality. Fontana makes no such mistake. His program, with impressive musical direction by Wells Hanley, is well thought out and full of fresh, imaginative song selections. For instance, "Nature Boy" would have been an all-too-obvious choice, but it's happily nowhere in sight. Instead, Fontana melds charming patter built about his relationship to nature with items such as Duke Ellington's "I Like the Sunrise" and a little known but gorgeous Stephen Sondheim song titled "Sand." A gentle jazz artist, Fontana phrases lyrics with care.
His vocals are carefully controlled, which can cut both ways. On one hand, there's something smooth, easy, and relaxing in his consistently mellow delivery. On the other hand, there is nothing dynamic about his performance; he works within a relatively narrow stylistic wavelength. But if there's a sameness to his style, we have to say that it certainly wears well. Fontana's sincere, likeable stage presence is a major asset that helps make Natural Jazz a highly enjoyable act.
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