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Jerry Marsini and Tim Cusack in Bald Diva!
(Photo © Chris Kalb)
"On the news, they always tell us when a celebrity dies, but they never tell you when a star is born." Thus speaks a character in David Koteles's Bald Diva!, a wickedly funny new production by Theatre Askew that is at once a biting parody of Eugene Ionesco's The Bald Soprano and a brilliant, thought-provoking hommage to its source material. Koteles's script keeps the structure of Ionesco's work intact but eschews the British setting in favor of New York City's gay mecca, Chelsea. (The line quoted above is a reworking of a statement by one of Ionesco's characters, who wonders why the newspapers always give the ages of the deceased but never those of the newly born.)

A queer adaptation of Ionesco's absurdist masterpiece may seem like a project that's doomed to failure, but this talented young company makes it work. Whereas The Bald Soprano has often been hailed as a biting critique of English bourgeois values, Bald Diva! is a scathing satire of the vapidity of a certain segment of gay urban culture. Tim Jackson-Smith (Tim Cusack) and his partner, Jim Jackson-Smith (Jerry Marsini) engage in inane conversational banter between themselves and with their guests, Craig Tyler-Martin (Jeffrey James Keyes) and Greg Tyler-Martin (Terrence Michael McCrossan). All four men are smitten with the Fire Chief (Nathan Blew), whose unexpected arrival stirs up a bit of excitement during the Jackson-Smiths' rapidly deteriorating dinner party. Rounding out the cast is Matthew Pritchard as the houseboy, Mary, who has a few surprises of his/her own.

Stylishly directed by Jason Jacobs, who co-conceived the project with dramaturg Jamee Freedus, the show is flawlessly paced and brought to vivid life by the talented ensemble cast. Cusack deserves special mention for his non-stop conversational dexterity, particularly during a tongue-twisting sequence wherein the Jackson-Smiths debate the fates of various characters all named Peter Popper. Marsini is the perfect complement to Cusack; he has mastered the art of pouting as well as the ability to convey volumes with a shift of the hip. Keyes and McCrossan have a delightful comic chemistry as the Tyler-Martins and Pritchard has a quirky stage presence that is well suited to the role of the possibly transgendered, socially disadvantaged Mary. Finally, Blew exudes a sexy charm and has a confident swagger that makes it easy to understand why the other characters love him so. His job as a fireman, while mimicking that of Ionesco's text, also seems to be a nod to post 9/11 anxieties and to the fact that the characters in the play (and, arguably, New Yorkers in general) find it much easier to fetishize their heroes than to alter the material conditions that govern their lifestyles.

Nathan Blew in Bald Diva!
(Photo © Chris Kalb)
It's not necessary to be familiar with Ionesco's play to enjoy Bald Diva!; Theatre Askew's production stands on its own as a richly theatrical and utterly entertaining spectacle. However, those who have read or seen productions of The Bald Soprano will appreciate the cleverness with which Koteles has transformed the characters and situations of the play in order to give them greater contemporary relevance and heightened comic impact. For example, in the original, Mr. and Mrs. Martin are at first unsure if they know each other and engage in the lengthy process of outlining circumstantial evidence in order to come to the conclusion that they are, in fact, married. In contrast, the Tyler-Martins have a scene in which they both confess to a bit of illicit steam room sex with an anonymous partner. They then follow a similar path of evidence and eventually agree that they had sex with each other.

Set designer Erik Flatmo's cartoonish backdrops and set pieces -- brightly colored, and featuring skewed angles and perspectives -- perfectly captures the hyper-surrealism of the production. Likewise, costumer Daniel Urlie outfits the Tyler-Martins in matching white T-shirts, brown pants, and sneakers while giving the Jackson-Smiths more individualized ensembles that are fabulously off-kilter.

Bald Diva! plays a 10:30pm Thursday-Saturday schedule at the tiny Red Room Theater in the East Village. However, don't let the late hour, small house, or limited number of performances discourage you from attending. This is a production well worth seeing, and you should get your tickets while you still can.

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