Fringe Benefits

Confidential to Reader: Reserve Tickets Now; Bring Loose Clothing

Viva Los Alamos, another musical comedy, also boasts a sneering charmer in the leading role. Alamos, an ostensibly lost Elvis flick, features the pompadour-sporting Michael A. Schneider as Dex/Elvis—a pelvis-swiveling hottie who has "to prove I can do more with myself than build weapons of incredible destruction—and sing!" While the parody elements don't always go over, the music and lyrics sizzle with more spark than expected. As Dex sings in the opening number, "We're splitting atoms and splitting shakes/Beating those Commies with whatever it takes/Viva Los Alamos!" Indeed.

While Marty and Dex seem terribly assured of their leading-men roles (bloody other guy, get girl, end of story), in several other plays the landscape of masculinity isn't so smooth. In Hideous Men, a collection of monologues and scenes culled from David Foster Wallace's fictions, a rogues' gallery of unsavory alpha males unpacks an array of emotional and sexual pathologies—think Maxim combined with poststructuralist theory and a mean streak. While not at all unintelligent and often very fine, the production never quite convinces that Wallace belongs anywhere but on the page. (Confidential to actors Trevor A. Williams and Justin Campbell: I know it's live theater, but all that direct eye contact while you're talking about tying up women and masturbating to Bewitched reruns can make a girl really uncomfortable.)

The ninja and the fury: a toy MacBeth transports you to a simpler, cuter Scotland.
photo: Hiroyuki Ito
The ninja and the fury: a toy MacBeth transports you to a simpler, cuter Scotland.

And while actress Katie Firth plays all the roles in Stephen Belber's Finally—a four-character investigation into the murder of a semi-pro football coach—this play, too, speaks about the masculine condition. Belber's script plays out in a world without heroes—save perhaps for the family dog. The unsavory men concerned attempt to put aside personal demons and become excellent fathers, husbands, football players—achieving only indifferent success. Belber and Firth succeed much better, girding the play's world with an unsentimental pathos and intelligence.

In one of Finally's most interesting details, two characters possess pairs of redundant nipples. This clever and evocative fillip hints at theater's continuing interest in abnormal and extraordinary bodies. Other Fringe plays deal—directly or glancingly—with aliens (UFO, Viva Los Alamos, House of Trash, Little Green Man). And several explore bodily freakery or virtuosity, with varied results.

A sad mishmash of anachronism and cliché, Merrick's Gallery—written by and starring Jon-Michael Hernandez—rehashes the life of Joseph Carey Merrick (a/k/a the Elephant Man). One of the greatest curiosities of the 19th century, the Elephant Man doesn't lack for theatrical potential. But Hernandez's maudlin script, with its predictable emphasis on mind-body dichotomy, adds little to the extant literature. (Confidential to Mr. Hernandez: You might want to wipe the Vaseline off that lens.)

Nailing the virtuosity angle, consummate showman Todd Robbins (Carnival Knowledge) snacks on broken glass, regurgitates critters, and pounds four-inch spikes into unlikely places. As skilled a historian as he is a performer, Robbins begins with vintage recordings of outside talkers turning the tip, extolling the virtues of two-headed babies, wild girls, even Professor Heckler's Flea Circus. But he keeps his own patter snappy throughout. "It's just like comedy," he frequently deadpans.

Also peppering their acts with jibes and jokes are magicians Jamy Ian Swiss (The Honest Liar) and Mark Mitton (The Big Tent Show). Swiss, very East Village avuncular with pierced ear and sharp suit, performs a program of card magic, intercutting the tricks with raillery—"Before I came out here tonight I had a premonition. . . . So I took an aspirin." And the seersucker-clad Mark Mitton pleases not only with his close-up act, but also in the dork-suave persona he perpetuates. Straight-faced, he dedicates his show to the disappearance of the adverb and bounces across the stage in an indelible prance.

Of course, comedy plus virtuosity doesn't always spell fun. Ursus & Nadeschkin, the wacky duo behind Synchronized Swimming—the dry version, charm with their helter-skelter humor and juggling. (The act almost defies explanation, but a friend came close when he called them "the Swiss-German Marx Brothers.") But the cracks and gags of Fred Anderson Prop Comic often fall flat—as do the objects he's manipulating. Oops.

Certainly, the Fringe has problems. Its format lends itself toward dicey tech and insufficient rehearsal time; the size makes for awkward scheduling; and some of the spaces outright suck. (Confidential to Fringe producers: Did I mention the unairconditioned ones?) But that doesn't stop several well-nigh perfect shows from emerging intact. In fact, the whole shebang conjures another gem from Doctor Faustus: "In hell is all manner of delight."

« Previous Page