There are two Off-Broadway shows that examine how skin deep are our perceptions of women in American culture. It's astonishing that both can exist on New York stages and that both can be classified as theater, because one of them -- Pieces (of Ass) -- might better be titled Pieces of Trash. It's one of the most obscenely hypocritical "things" we have ever seen on the boards.
The show consists of a parade of sexy babes wearing the most revealing outfits possible, virtually all of them with a fetish for hellishly high-heeled "fuck me" pumps. They come out on a runway and deliver monologues that are largely about how men only care about women's looks. More pathetic than ironic, the entire production is designed for leering at outlandish, pseudo-sexy posturing. And we're supposed to be sympathetic to their complaints? The whole thing would be ridiculous if it wasn't so offensive. It might even be entertaining if the monologues were actually any good, but only one of them is well written and engagingly acted; interestingly, it's by the only lesbian in the group. Sometimes a play is so bad that it's fun. If only that were the case with Pieces (of Ass)! We're sorry to say that it's not a guilty pleasure. Rather, it's all guilt and absolutely no pleasure.
Fat Pig, on the other hand, is one of the best plays of the season thus far. Neil LaBute's creation is a masterful and probing work that introduces us to a sensitive, good-looking, intelligent, and successful young man named Tom (Jeremy Piven). This fellow finds himself attracted to a woman named Helen (Ashlie Atkinson), who is seriously overweight. We like Tom because, unlike most men, he doesn't dismiss the "fat pig" out of hand; instead, he follows his healthy instincts and embarks upon a relationship with her. But his skinny, beautiful, blonde ex-girlfriend at work (Keri Russell) and his mean-spirited best friend (Andrew McCarthy), who has an office down the hall, torture him constantly about the obese object of his affections.
What's a hero to do? Defy society's conventions and tell his co-workers to go screw themselves? Or will he cave? That's basically the entire thrust of the play, but it's written and acted with so much sensitivity to the complexities of human nature that these characters come alive for us. True, the two antagonists are extreme, but their vituperative personalities are given weight -- you'll excuse the pun -- by the compelling back stories that LaBute wisely allows them to tell. If there's good news about the state of the theater today, it's that Fat Pig is a hit and Pieces (of Ass) is playing to mostly empty houses.
Nothing "Rivals" Lincoln Center
The colorful and buoyant production of The Rivals at the Vivian Beaumont is a vivid reminder of how much Lincoln Center Theater enriches our lives. Last year, it was the heroic and star-studded production of Shakespeare's Henry IV; this year, the company has taken on an even greater challenge because, despite its pedigree, most theatergoers have never seen The Rivals. It may have been a huge hit 200 years ago, but Streetcar it ain't in terms of enduring popularity.
Sparing no expense, LCT -- with help from director Mark Lamos -- is offering this powder puff to the public. Richard Brinsley Sheridan's comedy is wonderfully playful, and it provides some of our finest actors with wonderful roles. The cast is huge and quite winning, but Richard Easton in particular gives a master class in performance with his portrayal of the comically arrogant father of the hero.
Only a company like Lincoln Center Theater, with the twin attributes of wealth and the willingness to spend it, could have mounted this benchmark in our English speaking theater heritage so sumptuously. Of course, not every single LCT production is a winner; still, at year's end, it seems only right to take notice of the company's commitment to quality.
There is hardly a cabaret performer with more presence than Klea Blackhurst. This talented woman burst upon the scene a few years ago with her Ethel Merman show, and it turned her into a star. Her recent follow-up act at Opia, devoted to the work of Vernon Duke, frankly did not suit her; she's an exciting belter and an accomplished comedienne, qualities that were largely subdued in her performance of Duke's songs. Blackhurst is a natural with patter; her stories about Duke were a highlight, but the ballads were not distinguished by great interpretive acumen. One longs to hear her sing more pulsating and earthy material, such as tunes by Irving Berlin.
Emotional highwire artist Barbara Brussell performed a critically acclaimed show at Danny's Skylight Room devoted to lyricist Alan Jay Lerner. Modeled on the kind of act that Andrea Marcovicci usually performs, it was full of tasty anecdotes and a loving devotion to the material. Brussell was charming and in exceptionally fine voice. The show was marred only by a series of strange choices when she sang songs designed for male singers that made no sense coming out of her mouth; the gender switch, which can sometimes add a fresh dimension to a tune, did no such thing here. Nonetheless, Brussell seems to have turned a corner. As long as she doesn't lose her vulnerability, her career path should continue on a sharp rise.
After Jackie Hoffman's unprecedented success with her one-woman show at Joe's Pub earlier in 2004, she returned to the scene of her success for a Christmas show with Kristine Zbornik in tow. It's a testament to Hoffman's confidence in her own abilities that she was willing to give such a talented performer the opportunity to share the stage with her. Zbornik is a terrific comedienne in her own right and she proved it at Joe's Pub, no doubt winning fans by the roomful. Both she and Hoffman were hilarious, though mostly when each was on stage alone. Their solo routines were generally more successful than the shtick they did together; there was something forced and unpolished about their work as a team. But both women have a dark, subversive sense of humor, so it wasn't jarring whenever one took the stage after the other. They were helped considerably by their substitute pianist, John MacMahon, who brought his own cheeky comedy to bear in this very funny show.