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FringeNYC 2009: Roundup #1

Reports on Vote!, The Event, Afterlight, and Notes on the Land of Earthquake and Fire.

Bailey Hanks stars in Vote!
(© Angie Hanks)
[Ed. Note: This is the first in a series of TM review roundups of shows in the 13th annual New York International Fringe Festival.]


The new musical Vote!, at the Minetta Lane Theatre, has several Broadway actors involved, including Bailey Hanks, Deidre Goodwin, and Morgan Karr, but don't expect to see this clunker about high school electoral politics on the Great White Way any time soon -- or at all. Featuring book and lyrics by Ryann Ferguson with music and additional lyrics by Steven Jamail, the show is a misguided mess.

The central conflict is between cheerleader Muffin (Hanks) and nerd Mark (Karr), who are running against each other for school President. The piece features dirty tricks (Nixon is one of Mark's heroes), ethical conundrums, questions of popularity versus experience -- and with the emergence of third candidate Nikki (Sasha Sloan), issues of race. Unfortunately, subpar dialogue and flatly drawn characters don't allow the show to achieve much complexity.

The music is serviceable, but not particularly memorable, although Mark's seductive duet with Muffin's best friend Trish (Nina Sturtz), "Time Doesn't Solve Problems," is catchy and allows Karr to showcase his charm and comic sensibility. Hanks, best known for winning MTV's Legally Blonde reality TV contest (and then playing Elle Woods on Broadway), disappoints as Muffin. While she looks fabulous in Nicky Smith's costumes, her portrayal is one-dimensional and she occasionally strays from notes in her upper register. Goodwin commands the stage as high school teacher Ms. Venora Fowler, but she doesn't have a lot to work with in terms of fleshing out her character.

The musical seems to want to spoof America's larger electoral process while still upholding the basic tenets of democratic elections. But it treats its subject matter too simplistically for social critique, and isn't funny enough to be an effective satire.

-- Dan Bacalzo

Matt Oberg in The Event
(© Dixie Sheridan)
John Clancy -- a co-founder of the New York International Fringe Festival -- uses The Event, at the Players Theatre, to illustrate what the best of the annual undertaking can be. The solo piece written and directed by Clancy and starring Matt Oberg, is creative, thought-provoking, and unique. Yet, looked at from a different perspective, it could be considered to be about nothing at all.

Oberg -- who has James Stewart-like unprepossessing good looks -- is revealed in a pool of light and starts talking about being an actor standing in a pool of light. He refers to appearing before strangers while reciting memorized lines in a suit that isn't even his. He says he himself isn't fully in sync with "this art thing -- meta thing." He lets audience members know it's fine with him if anyone wants to leave. (At the performance I attended one man took Oberg up on the offer.)

Indeed, the 63-minute-long piece (Oberg announces its exact length) is as quintessentially meta-theatrical as can be in these days when meta-theater is so much in vogue. But as Oberg digresses from his initial topic and talks randomly on diverse subjects (though not randomly at all), he leaves off discussing his being in a play with no plot -- and only a chair as an addition to the otherwise empty stage. He reaches a point where he's talking about life being a plotless play, implying strongly that all citizens of the world are merely existential actors in that script. Therefore, the work is about something very 21st Century, after all.

One of the joint Clancy-Oberg achievements is turning the often poetical Event into a model of how one-person shows can be directed and performed. Aside from too many both-arms-raised-at-half-mast gestures, Oberg's economy of movement is exemplary.

-- David Finkle

Davi Santos and Allyson Morgan
(© Chris Davis)
In her new play, Afterlight, at the Cherry Lane Theatre, Monica Flory has won half the battle by creating an interconnected group of interesting, believable characters, but she keeps threatening to lose the war -- not to mention the audience's attention -- by sticking them in an often aimless, underdeveloped, and ultimately perplexing script.

The seven residents of a small Northeastern town that we meet are all affected by the sudden death of school bus driver Mr. Peterson. No-nonsense, 60-year-old Louise (Kim Carlson) -- long married to the irascible Michael (a very good Angus Hepburn) -- dated Peterson in high school. Meanwhile, precocious youngster Shane (Tyler Mena), who lives with single, pregnant mom Ann (Kimberly Prentice), and teenagers-in-love Pru (a forthright Allyson Morgan) and Hunter (an adorable Davi Santos) were all Peterson's charges.

Shaken up by his death, these people begin to deal with some of their larger life issues. For example, Louise and Michael must not just face the challenges of increasing age and fragility, but finally discuss the death of their infant daughter 24 years ago; Ann, Shane, and Ann's new boyfriend Hess (Frank Mihelich) struggle with the concept of creating a new, blended family; and Pru becomes increasingly obsessed with determining the identity of the father who abandoned her as a child.

Not content to deal in depth with these serious issues, which are handled with sensitivity if a lack of originality, Flory throws a whole supernatural element into the mix: Michael hears things in his house's floorboards; Shane sees hundreds of albino butterflies by Peterson's burnt-up school bus, and Pru and Hunter encounter a dangerous wolf in the graveyard where they go to have a late-night adventure. These storylines never really amount to a whole lot -- thematically or otherwise -- and the fact that they can't be visualized in Misti B. Willis' bare-bones, one-set production severely undercuts their effectiveness. (Willis would also be wise to cut back on the excessive use of musical underscoring.) As a result, by the time Afterlight comes to its abrupt end at 80 minutes, both the characters and the audiences remain frustratingly in the dark.

-- Brian Scott Lipton

Chad Lindsey and Ian Scott McGregor in
Notes on the Land of Earthquake and Fire
(© Jason (Woei-Ping) Chen)
If you've seen any of the innumerable set-in-southern-California plays or TV series -- such as David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, David Rabe's Hurlyburly, Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed, or especially HBO's Entourage -- then you've seen Jason Shafer's surprisingly derivative Notes on the Land of Earthquake & Fire, now at the Players Theatre.

In the play -- which informs us that Hollywood is a shark tank -- gay assistant Chad (Ian Scott McGregor) is being verbally tormented by film producer Alan Howard (Scott Aiello). Chad has been minding Alan's entitlement-bred 13-year-old daughter, Lena (Sarah Grover), and has brought her without permission to Alan's Malibu getaway. Before the tyrannical greenlighter arrives, however, Chad has to deal not only with Lena but with strung-out flickmaker Shane (Chad Lindsey), who buys his drugs online and pops them liberally before passing out on a surf board.

The apparent suspense here is whether Chad will eventually stand up to Alan as a rampaging fire threatens nearby of if he will swallow the easy-cynicism Tinseltown pill. He does swallow a few other pills that haven't the effect on him they have on handsome loser Shane. Chad does eventually come into incriminating skinny on the relentless Alan; unfortunately, it's totally unbelievable.

Shafer -- who wrote the screenplay to the cult film Trick -- does a better job directing his piece, which is enhanced by high-quality acting. And the play's vituperative language is so chiseled you could fool yourself into thinking you're listening to something of actual value.

-- David Finkle