Well, ladies, this is certainly one way to convince your man to take you to the theater, though be forewarned that what happens in the Tim Tam Room stays in the Tim Tam Room. Ars Nova, home of the off-Broadway hit Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, has taken on yet another façade as an old-timey burlesque club in Eager to Lose, harking back to the days of classic vixens like Mae West and Gypsy Rose Lee. Pasty tassels swirl, skin is plentiful, and the concept of personal space loses all meaning. Yet, the uninhibited performers radiate an unexpected innocence (even as clothes are shed and dollar bills fly), simultaneously subverting and exceeding all of my expectations about this theatrical form, which I had never thought of exploring before.
Playwright Matthew-Lee Erlbach demonstrated his talent for channeling a wide array of unique voices earlier this season, performing the one man multi-character show Handbook for an American Revolutionary downtown at the The Gym at Judson. He has outdone himself at Ars Nova, tapping into the joyfully farcical spirit of burlesque — with the help of codirectors Wes Grantom and Portia Krieger — through a Shakespearean comedy of errors built from rhyming verse that ranges from the poetically eloquent to the brashly hilarious.
John Behlmann serves as the evening's MC — a tall, handsome Hollywood throwback with a soothing baritone and straw hat, perfectly cocked to the angle of debonair. He warms up the crowd with a few introductory stripteases as we take in the lounge-club ambience (designed by Mark Erbaugh) and a few inhibition-melting cocktails. We also have a few minutes to mentally prepare ourselves for all the birthday suits to come — though in each scandalous sketch, we get a good look at Tilly Grimes' impeccably flamboyant costumes before the girls bare it all. The talented group of jazz musicians (led by Cody Owen Stine) partakes in a few beverages, as well, as they casually banter with our host.
Once the plot is underway we find we've already become intimately acquainted with our leading ladies during the pre-show festivities. Cocreator, choreographer, and seasoned burlesque performer Tansy shows off her expertise, headlining the production as herself, or rather, her onstage persona. A West Side Story glance-across-the-gym moment between Tansy and MC launches us into a frenzy of deception and misunderstandings as the pair must settle their feelings for each other before Tansy finalizes her decision to retire from the Tim Tam Room and run off with a '90s sitcom star (I'll leave it to Tansy to tell you which character won her heart).
Next in line to take over the G-string-covered throne are angelic newcomer Glinda (Emily Walton, who, in the pre-show, is given the opportunity to flaunt her vocal talents…among other things) and the embittered veteran Trixie (Stacey Yen), who, as the Iago of burlesque, will stop at nothing to secure her place at the top. Both actresses are novices in the world of burlesque, yet Walton and Yen hold their own next to Tansy whose bread and butter is this most immodest of theatrical forms. From the ease of their performances you would assume that Glinda and Trixie have already packed their bags to join Tansy in the next World Burlesque Games (yes, that is a real competition). However, Richard Saudek steals the show with an astounding physical performance as MC's mute sidekick, Peeps, channeling masters of silent-film-era comedy like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Without a single word, he holds an audience captive for several minutes as he mimes a story with more twists and turns than an episode of Law & Order.
Eager to Lose is filled with allusions to this bygone era of entertainment, eliciting nostalgia for a time that most of us did not have the good fortune of experiencing firsthand. Luckily, we can leave the Tim Tam Room with the heartening knowledge that there is a community that continues to keep this era alive. While off-Broadway is giving you the chance to visit these performers of yore, let them entertain you — I guarantee, you'll have a real good time.
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