Doug Tompos in Bent to the Flame
Doug Tompos in Bent to the Flame
[Ed. Note: This is the second in a series of TM review roundups of shows in the 11th annual New York International Fringe Festival.]

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Few people would ever think of linking the astringent Samuel Beckett with the florid Tennessee Williams. When, however, in Bent to the Flame - A Night with Tennessee Williams the latter playwright says, "I can't write and I have to write," a connection between the two disparate legends looms electrifyingly into view. The Williams declaration is instantly recognizable as a poignant variation on Beckett's defining outburst "I can't go on, I must go on."

This revelation is only one of the surprises in the solo show Doug Tompos has written about the St. Louis-New Orleans-based playwright and in which he appears looking and sounding convincingly Williams-like. The premise alone is the kind of inspiration that few one-person outings can lay claim to. During a period of writer's block Williams is experiencing after the 1945 opening of The Glass Menagerie, the dramatist agrees to give a talk to friends about Hart Crane. Confiding that Crane was perhaps his most important influence, Williams is intent on going into detail about how that influence affected him. He isn't shy about becoming misty over a handful of Crane's poems as well as in response to the sad life of a poet who committed suicide at 32.

While prepping the talk, Williams insists he only reveals himself through his characters. It's no surprise, though, that he reveals plenty through his emotional discussion of Crane and through the digressions he indulges on things like his sister Rose's lobotomy and the artistic birth of Blanche Du Bois. Directed by Michael Michetti with just the right amount of stepping away from the style moderne chair in which he drinks and smokes, Tompos, in approximately 75 minutes, comes so close to Williams' essence that it's nothing short of astounding.

-- D.F.

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Rochelle Zimmerman and Karen DiConcetto in I Dig Doug
Rochelle Zimmerman and Karen DiConcetto in I Dig Doug
There will be numerous political plays on the boards between now and the 2008 Presidential election, but you'll be hard pressed to find one as amusing as I Dig Doug, written and performed by Karen DiConcetto and Rochelle Zimmerman.

The satirical comedy follows the political awakening of a spoiled rich girl (DiConcetto), who becomes disenchanted with her favorite Reality-TV star and instead starts obsessing over presidential hopeful Douglas Ward. Our unnamed heroine follows the debates, blogs about Doug incessantly, and drags her best friend Nicole (Zimmerman, who plays all the other roles) on a road trip to the Iowa caucus, so that she can meet the candidate in person.

While some of the scenes go on a bit too long -- such as a sequence set at a hippie communist commune -- the show delivers more than its share of laughter. Bert V. Royal's spot-on direction assures that nearly all of the jokes land, and the pace remains brisk despite numerous scene and costume changes.

DiConcetto could easily overdo her character's vapid demeanor, but remains so committed to her portrayal that the girl's eventual realization that "I'm superficial" comes as a hilarious epiphany. Zimmerman has a great sense of comic timing, even if some of her many characters are not as well realized as others.

Certain jokes in I Dig Doug are so freshly minted (such as one about Giuliani's daughter supporting Obama) that it's clear the playwright-performers are updating their script to reflect current events. There's also a final twist at the end that helps to make the piece as a whole delightfully satisfying.

-- D.B.

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Troy David Mercier and Michael Evans Lopez in Helmet
(© Nafis Azad)
Troy David Mercier and Michael Evans Lopez in Helmet
(© Nafis Azad)
Life is like a video game in Douglas Maxwell's entertaining, but uneven Helmet. The play concerns computer game store owner Sal (Michael Evans Lopez) and teenager Roddy a.k.a. "Helmet" (Troy David Mercier). When a character is wounded (usually verbally), he loses energy and may "die." If this occurs, the action restarts to the last important plot point and the characters have to renegotiate their interaction in order to continue.

For the majority of the show, Roddy and Sal are in opposition, but there are occasional moments where they work together, boosting one another's energy levels through compliments and positive connections. Sound designers Vincent Olivieri and Amy Altadonna have done a fantastic job with the various sound effects that reflect what's going on in the "game."

Director Maryann Lombardi has the actors moving in a stylized fashion, often mimicking the walks of video game characters like Super Mario. They're also called upon to crawl upon the floor as if navigating a treacherous path, or make small leaps over obstacles. Mercier, who has a wonderful energy and good focus, is quite adept at this type of motion. Lopez, on the other hand, is a bit stiff. However, he does well with the more naturalistic interactions within the play.

Helmet addresses how the characters deal with failure and loneliness, although at times the revelations feel forced. The secrets that Roddy keeps, in particular, come across as overly melodramatic. Still, the play contains some good character moments and even a few insightful observations about life, video games, and the similarities and differences between the two.

-- D.B.

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Jeff Brown and Soneela Nankani
in An Air Balloon Across Antarctica
(© CJ Chambers)
Jeff Brown and Soneela Nankani
in An Air Balloon Across Antarctica
(© CJ Chambers)
The premise for An Air Balloon Across Antarctica has Fringe written all over it: a female explorer and an obese hamster attempt to fly over the frozen continent in a hot air balloon. Unfortunately, the rather tedious show fails to live up to the imaginative image at its core.

The play, written and directed by Darragh Martin, starts out promisingly as Caitlin (Soneela Nankani) passes the time playing "I Spy" with Ham (Jeff Brown), a hamster who would rather be a lemming. ("Lemmings are the rock stars of the rodent world," says Ham.)

Then the flashback sequences kick in, revealing the romantic history between Caitlin and James (Terence MacSweeny), who are sometimes also portrayed by Cooper Harris and Josh Breslow as the couple's younger selves. Exposition is doled out piecemeal, until the audience comes to understand exactly why Caitlin is up in the air balloon with an urn of ashes that she intends to scatter to the winds.

The majority of the actors -- which also include Walker Lewis, Courtney D. Ellis, and Matthew Ludwinski as a trio of historical figures that Caitlin conjures up in her imagination -- are unable to do much with what they're given. Brown is the one bright spot in the show, radiating a buoyant energy that makes his anthropomorphic rendering extremely adorable.

The production attempts to strike a balance between comic absurdity and heartfelt drama, but Martin is unable to make us care much for any of his characters, with the possible exception of Ham. The show says nothing new about grief and human relationships, pulling out the clichés rather than probing the raw edges of its characters' emotions.

-- D.B.

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For more FringeNYC coverage, see our Fringe preview and our first review roundup.