Jan Leslie Harding in
The Umbrella Plays
(© Jimmy Ryan)
Jan Leslie Harding in
The Umbrella Plays
(© Jimmy Ryan)
[Ed. Note: This is the first in a series of TM review roundups of shows in the 12th annual New York International Fringe Festival.]

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Adroitly written and finely performed, Stephanie Janssen's The Umbrella Plays, at Walkerspace, is a collection of short works dealing with love, loss, grief, depression, art...and umbrellas. Janssen has a gift for cleverly quirky dialogue that is suffused with real emotion. For example, when perched on the edge of a bridge, a suicidal woman (the excellent Jan Leslie Harding) has a sudden, clarifying revelation: "You brought an umbrella with you, stupid, you don't even wanna get wet, much less dead."

This sketch, co-starring Natalie Gold as a jogger who happens upon the potential suicide, is the strongest of the six segments. While it never delves too far into the specifics of the two women's lives, it nevertheless gives the audience a clear picture of who they are, and the loneliness and isolation that they carry with them.

The remainder of the program offers its own charms and heartfelt emotions. A man (Haynes Thigpen) and woman (Molly Ward) meet cute in the rain, with only one of them holding an umbrella; another man (a pitch-perfect Mark Setlock) rages against the weather and his ex-boyfriend as he experiences a really bad day; a former couple (Janssen and Mycah Hogan) have a chance encounter in the rain, which stirs up conflicted feelings; a woman (a quietly moving Gold) opts against going to a former love's funeral; and a trio of museum goers (Setlock, Janssen, Harding) debate the merits of a sculpture entitled "Umbrella Sketch #6."

Director Daniel Talbott brings out fantastic performances from his entire ensemble, keeps the action fluid, and utilizes the buckets of water strategically placed around the stage to good effect. However, those in the front row should be forewarned that they might get a little wet.

-- Dan Bacalzo

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Debora Weston 
(© Carol Storey)
Debora Weston
(© Carol Storey)
The chick-lit pioneer portrayed by Debora Weston in the hour-long solo piece See How Beautiful I Am: The Return of Jackie Susann, at the SoHo Playhouse, is fond of spouting statistics: the 15 hours of electrolysis it took to achieve her fashionably high-browed hairline or the 937 pages she cranked out for the first draft of her 1966 bestseller, The Valley of the Dolls (which remains to this day a top contender for best-selling novel of all time). The wonder is how, amid her frantic bouts of self-improvement and self-expression, Susann also managed to fit in some 500 lovers -- and that's just the males.

According to Paul Minx's is-it-all-true? script, Susann also prized liaisons with the likes of Coco Chanel and Ethel Merman for the close brush they afforded with fame, which was always her primary addiction. After a going-nowhere stab at acting, Susann enjoyed her own notoriety soon enough thanks to "VD" (her shorthand for Valley). But the comatose celebrity whom we meet on her deathbed in 1974, leaping up to reenact key memories before she flatlines, is never satisfied -- the price, perhaps, of a life spent tap-dancing, one way or another, in a futile quest to captivate her flagrantly philandering "Daddy."

Minx's writing, Paul Dubois' direction, and Weston's impersonation are all flawless. Still, there's not a lot of insight on display here. Despite the frank language and ribald reminiscences ("I humped anything that wasn't nailed down"), this Susann sticks doggedly to the surface in recreating her driven life. The sum total leaves one wanting, just as Susann herself evidently remained, despite her record-setting -- if dubious -- achievements.

-- Sandy MacDonald

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Christian T. Chan, Grant Boyd, and Justin Gillman
(© Pascal Perich)
Christian T. Chan, Grant Boyd, and Justin Gillman
(© Pascal Perich)
Sex scandals amongst DC politicians are ripe for theatrical exploration. However, Clarence Coo's The Legislative Process, at the Schaeberle Studio Theatre at Pace University, should stick closer to the already flabbergasting real-life events that have afflicted -- and sometimes brought down -- many a politician, rather than craft a situation that rings false.

The play centers around Dexter (Christian T. Chan), a hard-working teenager who has gotten into the Page program, giving him the opportunity to spend his junior year of high school on Capitol Hill. However, while Dexter studies and volunteers to do menial tasks in his congressman's office during his lunch hour, his handsome roommate Billy (Grant Boyd) skips class and receives gifts and invitations to go out with the prominent politicians who could boost his prospects.

These indiscretions, coupled with a round of e-mail and instant message communications between Billy and his admirers, are reminiscent of the Mark Foley scandal and should have been enough for Coo to make his point. Where the playwright goes wrong is in fabricating a rather ludicrous underground party called "the pork barrel." Embittered staffer Chad (Justin Gillman) wants to use Dexter to expose the illicit goings-on between congressmen and underage pages willing to go "all the way" to ensure their political futures.

Perhaps this situation would be more convincing if the playwright was a little less heavy-handed. Leaden chunks of exposition weigh the play down, and the dialogue rarely crackles. There is one well written monologue, nicely performed by Gillman, in which Chad instructs Dexter on the proper way to wear a suit, giving him a Pygmalion-like make-over so that he can blend in at the pork barrel. Still, this isn't quite enough to make the play credible.

-- Dan Bacalzo

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