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Laura Knight and Aedin Moloney in Talent
(Photo © Nick Drakides)
As Mama Rose says on the subject of talent, "You either got it or you ain't." The trouble is that people with talent sometimes don't or won't recognize it and, perhaps much more frequently, those who do not have it are unwaveringly convinced that they do. It's with the latter, madding crowd that Victoria Wood has chosen to deal, as have so many before her -- not the least of whom was Noël Coward. "The Red Peppers," a one-act from Coward's short-play program Tonight at 8:30 , established the mocking, slightly superior tone for assaults on the presumptuously ungifted types whom Wood struts out for laughs in the 80-minute comedy Talent.

First, a word about Victoria Wood, a household name in England for three decades but hardly known in America. A stand-up comic as well as a playwright, Wood has been handed prize after prize at home; Talent, upon bowing in 1978, won her both the Plays and Players and the Evening Standard awards for most promising playwright. At that time, Wood also appeared in the amusing work. The central character of Talent is Julie, a secretary by day who thinks that she can win an amateur night contest with her rendition of "Cabaret." Julie drags along Maureen, an overweight friend, to attend to various amenities. For the new Fallen Angels company's inaugural production, Julie is Laura Knight and Maureen is Aedin Moloney. The latter founded the troupe with the intention, as the program states, of "presenting in New York the most outstanding and daring new plays written by female British and Irish playwrights."

Noble intentions and welcome, of course, although it's a stretch to describe Talent as "daring." The slice-of-life playlet, at times touching and even scary, is better described as an extended skit. High drama, it does't boast; sharp observation of life on the lowest echelons of cabaret entertainment, it does. We see Julie getting ready to go on stage, running through her dire interpretation of "Cabaret" and also running into old boyfriend Mel (Tim Smallwood), who left her pregnant 12 years earlier. She also runs down Maureen, a hapless sack of uncertainty. Interrupting her is George Findley (Alfred Hyslop), a magician who's brought along his own tentative helper, Arthur (John Leighton. After the compère (Smallwood again) puts the moves on both, Julie and Maureen compare notes and begin to realize that the contest is rigged in favor of a local comic.

When she and Maureen skedaddle, it becomes clear that Wood wasn't out to be daring with her piece, which is set in a working-class Manchester suburb. She didn't write something like Trevor Griffiths's Comedians, a play that cuts to the comedy-making bone and finds it not funny at all. Wood merely wanted to generate a few laughs by exposing show-biz bottom-feeding -- and maybe nothing in England is lower than a Manchester club gig. She achieves her modest goal effortlessly. Not only are her depictions of Julie and Maureen deft, but she makes the four other characters three-dimensional, as well. Julie is self-absorbed but has some sensitivity; she's strong when informing Mel what a cad he's been. Maureen is everybody's sacrificing friend, whose good deeds regularly are punished to her bewilderment. Mel is properly caddish, the kind of man who recommends abortion as a run-of-the-mill practice. The conniving emcee is so oily that he practically slides across the stage. (The serviceable dressing room set of this production is credited to no one; neither are the costumes, although Julie's form-fitting ensembles are good sight gags.) And George is a beautiful realization of the kind of second-rate pro who's seen it all and is fazed by none of it.

The cast that savvy director John Keating has collected doesn't miss a trick. These players have trained and worked in England and/or Ireland, and they know whereof and for whom they're speaking. Moloney looks and sounds like Jane Horrocks's stateside sister and lands her lines accordingly. White-haired Alfred Hyslop as the slick magician and John Leighton as his agreeable pal are so smooth, they look as if they've put in prep time doing a double act. As the two sleazeballs, Tim Smallwood does yeoman work, making the chumps entirely different but equally odious. Laura Knight is gawky and funny as a singer who carries on like one of those chickens that used to play tic-tac-toe in carnivals. Both she and Moloney sing a handful of songs that are meant to express the uncertain characters' inner thoughts. The program doesn't say who wrote these ditties, but maybe Wood supplied the lyrics. They're okay but not up to the canny spoken dialogue.

If Fallen Angel instigator Moloney wanted to say a quick and appealing "hello" with this production of Talent before getting down to the Irish/English nitty gritty, that's all well and good. The play is "oustanding" in its own way, even if it's not very "daring."

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