Elisa DeCarlo in Cervix With a Smile
(Photo © Richard Termine)
Elisa DeCarlo in Cervix With a Smile
(Photo © Richard Termine)
[Ed. Note: This is the third in a series of TM review roundups of shows in the sixth annual Midtown International Theater Festival.]

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Cervix With a Smile

What's in a name? When a show has a title like Cervix With a Smile, you're practically guaranteed an evening of raunchy entertainment. Elisa DeCarlo's program of songs and comic monologues covers a wide range of topics including divine dream dates, an interactive guide to S&M, and bestiality, but the material is wildly uneven and DeCarlo's performance is often not strong enough to make it work.

The songs, written by DeCarlo and Ellen Mandel, combine intentionally derivative melodies with bizarre, often outrageous lyrics. The country-flavored "You Stained My Furniture and Broke My Heart," for example, includes the following lines: "We had foreplay by the furnace / And coitus on the couch / We had sodomy on the sideboard / Though I kept screaming 'Ouch!' " Unfortunately, DeCarlo is not a great singer; in fact, her screeching intonation often made me wince.

The show pushes the limits of bad taste, although two of its most offensive sequences -- a drunken black preacher sexually harassing a woman on the subway, and convicted serial killer Aileen Wuornos singing a little ditty called "Dead Guys by the Highway" -- have reportedly been excised since the night I attended. The writer-performer would be well advised to make a few more cuts: "River of Blood," sung by a hippie-ish lesbian who communes with Mother Earth and decides to stop using tampons, is rather atrocious, and a lengthy monologue by a former exotic dancer is tedious.

DeCarlo has numerous costume changes throughout the show, which makes it seem even more slow-going. (Accompanist Tracy Stark, who also plays a few supporting roles in the production, vamps while DeCarlo is changing.) And the fact that Cervix With a Smile has no clear ending makes DeCarlo's final bow an awkward moment.

-- D.B.

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Grieving for Genevieve

"Isn't there a statute of limitations on guilt?" asks a character in Kathleen Warnock's Grieving for Genevieve. "Of course not," replies her mother. This promising and often hilarious play centers on the Peck family: daughters Danni (Derin Altay), Delilah (Karen Stanion), and Angel (Susan Barnes Walker), and their mother Genevieve (Jo Anne Bonn). They've come together for Delilah's third wedding but are nearly torn apart by bickering, long-held resentments, and the untimely stroke that lands Genevieve in a wheelchair.

Warnock spends a little too much of the first act on exposition; the basic relationships of the four characters are established early on, and there's a repetitious feel to some of the scenes. However, once the second act begins, the play becomes increasingly absorbing as the daughters try to decide what to do with their invalid mom. The playwright handles the subject sensitively but with a great deal of irreverent humor.

The ensemble cast members play off of each other extremely well, and the character relationships are consistently believable. Bonn, in particular, is captivating as she silently gestures for a cigarette after losing her ability to speak. Director Peter Bloch is constrained by the limitations of the tiny Jewel Box Theatre space, and the numerous scene changes negatively impact the flow of the production. Even so, Grieving for Genevieve is a compelling work that deserves further development.

-- D.B.

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Tina Lee in How to Ride Roller Coasters
Tina Lee in How to Ride Roller Coasters
How to Ride Roller Coasters

Tina Lee does not like roller coasters. She also hates the fact that her father has cancer. In her one-woman show How to Ride Roller Coasters, the Korean-American solo performer details some of the ups and downs of her life, focusing on the brain tumor that affects her father's ability to effectively communicate. Lee has an easy rapport with the audience and a good sense of comic timing. Her monologue is peppered with wit and humor despite the seriousness of the subject matter.

Lee shares the stage with composer-musician Darryl Gregory, who provides a nearly continuous soundscape underneath Lee's words. Gregory plays a variety of instruments, both traditional and non-traditional; a harmonica, a jug, a saw, a whirling tube, and an egg shaker are just a few examples.

At a brisk 45 minutes, How to Ride Roller Coasters paints a poignant portrait of a family living with cancer and dealing with issues such as insurance nightmares, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. The metaphor of a terrifying roller coaster ride seems stretched at times, but Lee never falters in terms of her insight and her attention to detail. "I really miss the old days, when I took my family for granted," she remarks. It's a hard-earned lesson.

-- D.B.

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The Girls Who Wore Black

In a 1978 interview, Gregory Corso attested that his female contemporaries made vast contributions to Beat poetry but they were regarded as crazy, subjected to electroshock therapy, and dismissed by the journalists and tastemakers of his time. The Girls Who Wore Black, a collection of biographical monologues about five female Beat poets, aims to correct this historical oversight by telling stories about the life and work of Diane di Prima, Anne Waldman, Joyce Johnson, Elise Cowen, and Hettie Jones.

The show begins strikingly with a group incantation of a chant that was penned by Waldman. When it's finished, the cast members (Nicole Carpino, Anna Howland, Margaux Laskey, Michelle Weiss, and Beth White) sit and share details of the women's lives one by one, in confessional style. Johnson, Cowen, and Jones all grew up in Jewish families, eager to assimilate and cautious not to rock the boat. (The former remarks early on that her household was "genteel... gentile almost.") Di Prima rejected the creeping conformism of the 1950s, and Waldman -- a passionate intellectual -- moved from her New Jersey home to trail-blaze the East Village poetry scene at St. Marks Church. In between these vignettes, each actor performs poetry from the womens' oeuvre; highlights include Di Prima's "No Problem Party Poem" and Waldman's "May I Speak Thus."

Like many bio-plays, however, The Girls Who Wore Black suffers from sentimentality. When one actor steps up to perform a poem, some of the others tilt their heads backward and strike a "Rosie the Riveter" pose. Director JoEllen Notte, who otherwise elicits capable performances from the cast, fails to contain these excesses. Worse, the play dwells far too long on three of the characters' volatile romances with such famous Beats as Allen Ginsberg (then closeted), Jack Kerouac (then unknown), and LeRoi Jones (then relevant). This creates the unfortunate impression that some of these women are most notable for their relationships with their male counterparts.

Still, The Girls Who Wore Black is commendable for its combination of skillful ensemble work, fascinating history, and exhaustive research.

-- A.K.