Emily Bergl, Julie White, and Tom Irwin in Fiction(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Emily Bergl, Julie White, and Tom Irwin in Fiction
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
We concede that we're immediately drawn to any play about a husband and wife who are both writers. But that's just the starting point for Steven Dietz's new work, Fiction, at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre. What a pleasure it is to hear two characters use language with such joyful exuberance! Not only do they toss off witty repartee and deliver piercing monologues, these two married novelists also lie like the devil; that's what novelists do in the course of trying to tell the truth. But in Fiction, Michael (Tom Irwin) and Linda (Julie White) have combined art, lies, and love in an exotic literary cocktail that goes down smooth but leaves your head reeling with the shock of its potency.

We're loath to give away too much plot, but there's plenty more where this came from. We learn very early in the play that Linda has been diagnosed with a terminal illness; she has three weeks to live. Her dying request is that she might read her husband's journals. After all, he'll get to read her journals after she dies, so why shouldn't she read his now? From here, the play explodes like fireworks, each plot point bursting on the stage in flashes of brilliance and with a thunderous boom. Linda reads about her husband's month-long stay at a literary retreat, the same place where she wrote her first (and most famous) novel. What she learns from the journal sets off a chain reaction of revelations that any writer of "fiction" would envy.

David Warren directs with a theatrical simplicity that puts character and language ahead of sets, props, and lights. He gives the play over to his cast of three actors, and they lend the production all the razzle-dazzle it needs. In particular, Tom Irwin as Michael is remarkable; he manages to make all of his lines sound as if he's thinking of them in the moment. Julie White as Linda gets more of the play's jokes but comes off as rather actorish at first, though a more natural performance begins to emerge as the play unfolds. Emily Bergl is effectively mysterious as the woman at the writer's retreat who emerges in Michael's journal.

Fiction is a beautifully crafted play that illuminates the crossroads of reality and imagination; it takes us on a serio-comic journey down the path less traveled.

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Stephanie J. Block at Birdland(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Stephanie J. Block at Birdland
(Photo © Joseph Marzullo)
Welcome to The Block Party

To the theater public, Stephanie J. Block is Liza Minnelli in The Boy From Oz; to theater insiders, she's the next hot thing. The reasons for that were evident when she made her cabaret debut in a one-time-only act in front of a packed house at Birdland last Monday night. In the audience were many of Block's fellow Oz cast members, including Hugh Jackman. Backed by a three-piece band led by the gifted Billy Stritch at the piano, Block gave them quite a show.

If some of her early song selections were hit or miss, the show gathered a momentum that never flagged when Block launched into a medley of Petula Clark hit songs that sat perfectly in her pop belter's voice. Soon thereafter, she nailed a series of musical theater numbers that culminated with her spectacular rendition of "Defying Gravity" from Stephen Schwartz's Wicked.

Cabaret can be tricky for theater performers; they often stumble over the concept of playing themselves instead of a character. Block had no such problem. Under the tutelage of director Jim Caruso, she delivered patter that was consistently funny and endearingly self-mocking. She ad-libbed with comic ease, emerging from the show not just as a singer with a sensational voice but as a unique personality with charm and presence. A beautiful young woman with legs a block long, she's now got herself a career in both theater and cabaret.

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Solid Gold Covers

If someone should ever write a history of latter-day cabaret in New York City, they would be remiss if they didn't make significant mention of the Under the Covers series that's been going on this summer at Mama Rose. All of these shows are live versions of famous albums, performed by cabaret artists who have a special affinity or love for the originals.

There are two things that make this series so noteworthy. The first is that, with rare exceptions, the quality level of each show has been extraordinarily high. The adaptation of the albums to live performance has often been done with stunning originality, taste, and talent. Second, and most importantly, the vast majority of the cabaret artists in this series have chosen albums that fall under the umbrella of pop/rock rather than the traditional American Songbook. These performers are insisting through their art -- and through their sheer numbers -- that songs written and/or performed by the likes of James Taylor, Carole King, Carly Simon, Billy Joel, Barry Manilow, Fleetwood MAC, U2, The Beatles, and Cyndi Lauper aren't just piano bar fare but should have a place in serious acts in cabaret rooms.

Tracy Stark
Tracy Stark
We've caught quite a few of the Under the Covers shows, and while the songs don't always impress us, the performers -- and their approach to the material -- often do. Michael Edwin Stuart sang the U2 album Joshua Tree with a passionate commitment matched by his soaring tenor. He put on a vocally thrilling show. Stuart also did a great job of explaining some of the history of U2 and giving us the context for their politically active songs. That didn't always make the songs more palatable to a couple of critics who prefer Irving Berlin to Bono, but it did give us entry into a world about which we know little.

Tracy Stark performed Carole King's Tapestry album with so much intelligence, wit, and charm that she nearly convinced us that King was a better songwriter than the songs themselves prove. We can't remember ever enjoying a Tracy Stark performance more than this one.

Perhaps the most exciting show we've seen in the series was an evening devoted to the greatest hits album Standing in the Shadows of Motown. This, in itself, was an inspired idea; performing a greatest hits album insured a higher ratio of good songs. Michael Isaacs, Anne Steele, and Lennie Watts sang solo and were supported by three backup singers (Lee Lark Brown, Karen Mack, and Jonathan Tomaselli). The four-piece band included a sax player (Chuck Hancock), which is none too common in a cabaret room but made perfect sense for a Motown show.

Mama Rose rocked when "Heat Wave" was performed by Anne Steele in a grabber of an opener. Steele was at her pop diva best with a fierce rendition of "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," and she and Watts performed a playful duet of "Do You Love Me?" (no, not from Fiddler on the Roof; this was the Berry Gordy song). When the whole group was involved in such songs as "What's Going On?" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," they created not just a wall of sound but a wall of talent.

Watts put the "Mo" in Motown with two of his solos. At one point, he sang "You've Really Got a Hold on Me." We looked at each other when he was through and we both agreed that this was the best performed song of the year. Blue-eyed soul lived again; Watts's tenor was simply righteous (if you catch our meaning). Later in the show, Watts wailed in "You Keep Me Hangin' On," and the two of us instantly agreed that this was the best-performed song of the year. The arrangement gave the number an insistent poignancy through which Watts poured his heart.

One final revelation has come out of the continuing Under the Covers series: Rock can be performed in a cabaret club -- at Mama Rose, at least -- without breaking your eardrums.

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[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at siegels@theatermania.com.]