Billy Magnussen and Ashley Morris
in Paper Dolls
(© Jonathan Dubuque)
Billy Magnussen and Ashley Morris
in Paper Dolls
(© Jonathan Dubuque)
[Ed. Note: This is the fifth in a series of TM review roundups of shows in the 12th annual New York International Fringe Festival.]

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Deliciously bitchy and intelligent, Paper Dolls, at The Players Theatre, gives audiences an up-close-and-personal look at the cutthroat world of New York City gossip columnists and their prey. And if there's a feeling of verity about Dolls, it's not surprising; playwright Patrick Huguenin has penned more than a few gossip columns himself as a writer for Rush and Molloy of New York Daily News.

Huguenin's play focuses on gossip columnist Claire (Jen Jamula) and her former child star brother Austin (Billy Magnussen). Claire's on what her family is calling "Breakdown #3." She's retreated to the rooftop of her NYC apartment building (suggested marvelously in a bare-bones scenic design by David Newell), and Austin, summoned from location in Guam, has come to help her out of it. However, there are a couple of problems with Austin's presence at this critical time for Claire. he's sometimes fodder for not only her columns, but those of another columnist for whom Tammy (Allison Goldberg), Claire's former assistant and a one-time flame of Austin's, works. Also, would-be pop singer Isabel (Ashley Morris), Austin's newest flame, may only be interested in him because of what she thinks Claire may do for her career in terms of providing exposure in print.

The backstabbing spiral into which these four characters descend is wicked fun, particularly with Jamula's carefully turned performance as the highly-strung Claire. Magnussen and Morris are enormously appealing and sympathetic as the young lovers, who are never quite sure how much ink is good ink, and though Goldberg has some difficulty navigating Tammy's multifaceted nature -- she's vapid, cunning, and comic -- her performance is ultimately winning. Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch's staging manages to appropriately balance the piece's humanity, edginess and comedy, and though it feels as if Huguenin might have some minor rewriting to do -- particularly the play's final moments -- Dolls thoroughly satisfies.

-- Andy Propst

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Vince Nappo and Christina Shipp
in Other Bodies
(© Isaiah Tanenbaum)
Vince Nappo and Christina Shipp
in Other Bodies
(© Isaiah Tanenbaum)
Many a man has felt trapped inside a woman's body, but the situation is slightly different for Terry, the protagonist of August Schulenberg's overly ambitious if often moving Other Bodies at the CSV Cultural Center. Brilliantly played by Vince Nappo, Terry starts the two-and-a-half-hour drama as a womanizing advertising executive whose job, not so coincidentally, is to sell feminine products. Soon, he has set his sights on his new ice queen boss, Tina (Christina Shipp, who plays all the other roles in the show), but after their business meeting-cum-date goes disastrously awry, Terry wakes up as a woman.

After weeks and weeks of denial, Terry learns to re-adjust his life, eventually becoming an executive at another firm and falling in love with his immature boss Jeff (Shipp, modestly convincing). By the end of Act I, which contains Schulenberg's strongest writing and some fine direction by Heather Cohn, Terry has made a full-scale transformation, and Nappo consistently lets us see the duality of his character -- with minimal change of clothes -- never fully losing sight of the man inside the woman and vice versa.

Unfortunately, Schulenberg's work goes off the tracks in the second act as Terry ends up in the hospital after a gruesome accident. There, he is tended to by Benny, a 50-something embittered ex-priest turned doctor, who decides Terry is some part of God's master plan. The discussions of theology are far too dense and feel as if they belong in a totally different play. Adding to the problem, Shipp -- who looks and sounds like a young Felicity Huffman -- simply isn't up to the task of embodying this complex, gender-bending role. (Where's Kathleen Chalfant when you need her?) A melodramatic ending further lessens the work's impact, but Nappo never lets up in his passionate portrayal.

-- Brian Scott Lipton

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The cast of The Johnny
(© Dan Levine)
The cast of The Johnny
(© Dan Levine)
The clever moments come too late to save The Johnny, at Pace University's Michael Schimmel Center, a mediocre new musical by David L. Williams and David F.M Vaughn. Indeed, the show stumbles right at the start when it establishes the ridiculous premise that a high school calls its most popular athlete every year "The Johnny." It's a phony construct that is intended to signal the satiric tone of the piece, but all it does is make the satire more remote from reality. Later, when we learn that the big deal star athlete plays racquetball, the show finally starts to get some laughs.

There are two plot turns that keep one's interest alive. The first is that the nerd (Jonathan Cody White) who defeats the hero (Derek Krantz) to take the title of "The Johnny" causes a social upheaval by not shunning, but actually including, the high school geeks in his popular hierarchy. The other is that the deposed "Johnny" becomes a dancer in order to become a winner again. However, the new revolution in high school popularity -- a rich vein for humor -- is barely touched upon, and the dancing (choreographed by Grady Bowman) that should be stellar at the end comes up rather lame.

That said, the ensemble is an attractive and talented group, with the standout being Joshua Brandenburg as the best friend of the original "Johnny," who gives a musical comedy performance that is crisp, funny, and engagingly unique. Still, some of that credit should go to the show's creators, because they gave Brandenburg the show's most smartly written role.

-- Barbara and Scott Siegel

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The Studio Six Theater Co.
(© Paul Kaiser)
The Studio Six Theater Co.
(© Paul Kaiser)
During the USSR heyday, government philosophy was supposedly based on the famous Karl Marx phrase, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." But now capitalism at its worst has radically replaced communist economic theory, as playwright Viktoria Nikiforova proves in Hidden Fees at the Cherry Lane, where computer salesman Vasya (Matt Raines) and his sister, television worker Liza (Nicole Kontoleta), are caught in separate bankruptcy schemes.

Vasya thinks taking out a loan for an apartment built by developers using the corporate name Mirage is going to put him on easy street, while Liza thinks it's smart career-wise to avoid jeopardizing her rise in the ranks by retaining a surrogate mother for the child she desperately wants. Eventually, the young adults learn their punishing lessons at the sleazy hands of sexually harassing banker Karlson (Dominic Tancredi), loan officer and sexual harassee Zhenya (Karen Tararache), exploitative sex worker Amanda (Jill Dion), and Kremlin operative Pavel Petrovich (Vadim Kroll). Also, a resurrected Jesus Christ (Vasanth Santosham) wanders through the scenes, throwing up his hands in resignation and disgust.

The result is only mildly amusing, with the funniest bit being a speech Jesus makes about the difficulty he has forgiving our trespasses. More often than not, though, Nikiforova's comedy is strained, Raphael Schklowsky's direction is overbearing, and the Russian-trained actors -- members of the Studio Six Theater Company -- are hardly a confirmation of Stanislavski's subtlety-in-acting precepts.

-- David Finkle

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For TheaterMania's FringeNYC 2008: Roundup #1, click here.
For TheaterMania's FringeNYC 2008: Roundup #2, click here.
For TheaterMania's FringeNYC 2008: Roundup #3, click here.
For TheaterMania's FringeNYC 2008: Roundup #4, click here.
For TheaterMania's Fringe preview, click here.