Off-Broadway has been host to a slew of popular, genre-busting shows in recent years, such as De La Guarda and The Bomb-itty of Errors. Even older standards like Blue Man Group and Stomp are still testing their sold out audiences' perceptions of what to expect in a theatrical experience. With Joe Fearless, theater is given a new makeover: Drama as sporting event.
Liz Tuccillo's play tells the story of Joe Donnelly (Michael Leydon Campbell), a sports fanatic whose favorite team, The K9s, has finally made it into the finals despite a less-than-stellar track record. Joe is married, the father of two, and holds a monotonous nine-to-five job (his 13th position in just a few years). Watching his team play is his only source of inspiration. In fact, he has come to the definitive decision that if the K9s lose this year, he will "f**king die." This strange declaration leaves all those around him in a dumbfounded state, unsure of how to deal with Joe as he slowly loses his grip on reality.
The play shifts back and forth between two worlds: Joe's own day-to-day life and the actual basketball games on which he so desperately depends. Under Craig Carlisle's direction, these two spheres of existence never seem to complement one another. Instead, the show feels more like two different plays--one with intense energy and excitement, the other with a more subdued, soap opera sensibility. When the players and the dancers (an ensemble of fierce and funny performers) take the stage, the audience is in for a stimulating ride. The basketball games, choreographed with skill and spontaneity by Taro Alexander, are contagious in their energy, while the Fearless Fly Girls--choreographed by Danielle Flora and Laura Sheehy--tear up the stage with their no-nonsense dance numbers.
But when the action shifts to Joe's life, all we can do is hope for another game to start. Only Campbell's superlative, engaging, authentic performance saves these sections of the play from complete disaster; luckily, the actor has the charm and charisma to give this loser an appealing edge. Even when Tuccillo sends Joe into the most pathetic of circumstances, one cannot help but root for this baby-faced nothing. He will undoubtedly remind you of that guy you knew in high school whom everyone thought would make it big, but didn't.
The rest of the ensemble members do what they can to keep Joe's story compelling. They all have their moments of triumph over the material--but, in the end, these scenes do not add up to much more than empty melodrama. One is never invested in the lives of the characters.
Fortunately, the games and the dances turn up on cue to save the day, and the show does feature inventive set and lighting designs by Michael Brown. Mattie Ulrich's costumes and Keith "Wild Child" Middleton's original music also add flair. It's just too bad that Tuccillo relied so heavily on the "sporting event" concept, rather than inventing a story worthy of attention.