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FringeNYC 2009: Roundup #3

Reports on Viral, John and Greg's High School Reunion, For the Love of Christ!, and The Most Mediocre Story Never Told.

Kent Meister, Matthew Trumbell, Rebecca Comtois,
and Amy Lynn Stewart in Viral
[Ed. Note: This is the third in a series of TM review roundups of shows in the 13th annual New York International Fringe Festival.]


In Mac Rogers' engrossing Viral, at the SoHo Playhouse, a woman's search for a way to end her life has surprising meaning for a quartet of strangers who live hundreds of miles away. Meredith (played with quiet intensity and a depth of emotion by Amy Lynn Stewart) does an Internet search on the phrase "painless suicide," and comes into contact with a website run by Colin (Kent Meister) with the aid of brother-sister team Geena (Rebecca Comtois) and Jarvis (Matthew Trumbell). Their online chat about Meredith's desire to die ultimately turns into in-person offers of assistance in her quest.

With a decidedly dark comic bent, Rogers' play explores not only the ways people can exercise control in their lives, but also the ways in which human existence -- in its widest sense -- has become a commodity in the Internet age. In nine scenes that alternate between the hilarious and the morbidly bleak, the work reveals not only why Colin and crew are willing to help Meredith commit suicide, but also the tenuousness of their relationships. Domineering Colin's at his wit's end with Geena, his well-meaning, but too impetuous, girlfriend. He's concerned that Geena's friendliness might cause Meredith to change her mind. Concurrently, Meredith attempts to help Geena recognize how imbalanced her relationship with Colin truly is. Once a man named Snow (Jonathan Pereira) arrives on the scene, uneasy alliances and friendships splinter.

Director Jordana Williams expertly balances the play's tones and stories, but her work cannot conceal some of the inconsistencies or loose strands in the plot. Williams has also been unable to elicit uniform performances in her company; while Stewart and Comtois impress, Trumbull and Meister are underwhelming. Nevertheless, Viral satisfies and its story lingers well after its final moments.

-- Andy Propst

John Halbach and Greg Ayers in
John and Greg's High School Reunion
(© Kit Williamson)
The prospect of attending one's high school reunion is likely to induce both excitement and dread for most people -- including the titular characters of the hilarious John and Greg's High School Reunion, at the Players Theatre. Sharing their names with the show's writer/performers, John Halbach and Greg Ayers, the protagonists of this two-man sketch comedy are a pair of 28-year-olds who haven't gone as far as they would have liked in life.

After a brief present-day setup, the show flashes back to a lengthy reminiscence of what high school was like for the then-closeted Greg and socially inept John. We meet a range of characters (all played by Halbach and Ayers) that include John's crush Amanda, jock Brett, Japanese sock puppeteer Takami, Principal Walt Caldwell, and more. The action then shifts to the actual reunion itself, where we become reacquainted with the majority of these characters and see how far (or little) they've progressed in the intervening decade.

Ayers excels at an understated, caustic delivery as Greg, while Halbach is endearing in his primary persona. Most of the other roles they play stay firmly rooted in caricature, and transitions are made with the help of some frightfully bad wigs and an assortment of props and costume pieces. The show doesn't really try for depth, keeping the interactions on a fairly light, humorous level. But there is a gently ironic tone layered over nearly the entire piece, particularly as John and Greg declare the "valuable life lessons" they've learned from their reunion experience.

-- Dan Bacalzo

Ben Knox (center) in For the Love of Christ!
(© Jonathan Jacobson)
Early in For the Love of Christ!, a campy, irreverent musical at the Cherry Lane Theatre, a character appears who is clearly supposed to resemble Gaetan Dugas, the French Canadian flight attendant who was accused -- falsely, many believe -- of bringing AIDS to North America 30 years ago. Unfortunately, the connection remains frustratingly unexplored for the bulk of the evening, leaving a poisonous cloud hanging over the proceedings.

Is this show trying to exonerate him? Elevate him? Condemn him? Turn the question into a 1960s-style sex comedy? Sadly, the evidence points to the latter. Even when the character (played by Dan Amboyer) reveals divine inclinations and delivers an 11-o'clock number with an angelic chorus of flying monkeys, there's no discernible reason why -- except that Ben Knox, the author, lyricist, composer, and star of this piece, thought it would be naughty fun.

Knox's attempt to conjure a John Watersesque world of raging bigots, villainous queers, and lust-driven children falls short. Waters, at his radical best, sets dynamite under society's conventions and stereotypes, while Knox seems to wallow in them, uncleverly. (A typical laugh line, delivered by a man fondling the character of a boy: "I can't tell you the all-nighters I've pulled on behalf of children.")

On the positive side, Michael P. Kramer's set of dark, transparent plastic panels and faux construction girders is classy, and the company that Knox and director Holly-Anne Ruggiero have assembled all seem like they'd do well with better material. Jamaal Wilson, in particular, brings verve to his role of a cross-dressing young son. But the music is mostly forgettable. There are a few periodic jabs at something interesting, like the opening measures of "Daddy's Left Us," which Wilson and Eryn Murman (as his sex-crazed sister) play with a stylish menace before the number succumbs to the blandness of the rest of the score.

-- Andy Buck

Jay Sefton in The Most Mediocre Story Never Told
(© Ed Krieger)
In The Most Mediocre Story Never Told, at the Actors Playhouse Theatre, writer/performer Jay Sefton exuberantly bounds to the stage with a goofy grin that's instantly endearing, and his genuinely appealing presence promises a charming solo show. Unfortunately, the work ultimately emerges merely as a strained theatrical biography.

Sefton admits early on that little in his childhood would necessarily be considered fodder for a one-person show. His mom tucked a baggie filled with salt in his lunch bag so that he could season his food himself. Similarly, Sefton fondly remembers playing catch in the backyard with his dad as well as all of the time they shared watching television together.

In the absence of dysfunction, Sefton's forced to create it, and so he brings an alter-ego to the stage, a crass sort of redneck who belittles him. For every benign story that the performer might tell, this swearing, sex-obsessed, crotch-grabbing character has a showier alternative. This guy can't wait to have Sefton describe how he wet himself in grade school and for much of the show, he provides running commentary about Sefton's recollections about playing Jesus in his middle school's Passion Play.

There could be something to watching a man bring his insecurities to life, but in Mediocre, which has gotten a workman-like staging from director Debra Deliso, the effect is merely embarrassing. At times, the piece feels like the stage equivalent of a mother showing off the worst imaginable pictures of her child to his or her best friends. Sefton's aim seems to be to explore the nature of storytelling and how the tales we tell about ourselves are only variations on fact. It's an admirable idea -- and hopefully, the charismatic performer might one day find a more satisfying way of exploring it.

-- Andy Propst