Theater

The Stunt Men

You can buy a drink at Happy Hour (Chashama), but you won't need one to feel a pleasant comic buzz. Matthew Morgan, Mark Gindick, and Ambrose Martos, the group's talented trio, let fun flow freely throughout this evening of group-devised neo-vaudeville. For those who warm to the sight of trampolines, there's plenty of classic clowning, complete with pratfalls, acrobatic stunts, and lots of whoopee-cushion gags. (The cast boasts alumni of Clown College and a certain Greatest Show on Earth.)

But the troika's more eccentric Gen X antics are the true source of its charm. A relentless soundtrack of 1980s bubblegum pop fuels maniacal lip-synching routines, induces hyperventilation in a hip-hopping sequence, and inspires daredevil feats. (Whoever said that comedy requires an element of danger will be gratified to see Gindick's experiments with Pop Rocks and Coke.) In various guises, the threesome flatter the ladies of the front rows with their attention, twirling capes and serenading in sombreros; they also pursue each other, doing a fabulously zany drag tango.

Great clowning seizes on imperfection in all its forms—from dancefloor bumbles to folding chairs that snap shut on your nose. True to tradition, Happy Hour honors our never-ending failures with a cool adroitness that rarely wavers. (The Snuggle Bunny's audience visit goes on a little longer than it might, but how could anyone complain?) The finale's coup de grâce is a brilliantly unglamorous striptease (in bathrobes), leaving Austin Powers and The Full Monty in the dust. With meticulous execution, steady wit, and inventive personas, it's easy to see how Happy Hour could become a habit. —Tom Sellar


Yanks Swim to England

Aymer Smith, the priggish yet sympathetic protagonist of Jim Crace's 1995 novel Signals of Distress, doesn't exactly seem ready for his theatrical debut. At least not based on the Flying Machine's physically inventive yet indistinct stage version of the book, which tells the story of a lonely London businessman's encounters with a menagerie of shipwrecked Americans and other stranded visitors on the English coast in the 1830s. Adapted by director Joshua Carlebach and featuring Richard Crawford as Smith, the Soho Rep production creatively exploits the rubbery movement of the Lecoq-trained, Brooklyn-based company to convey the narrative with bodies as much as words. Brief, dimly lit, and agilely choreographed scenes try to capture the historical scope of the Industrial Age, marked by endless emigration, the slave trade, and a palpable sense of rootlessness. Yet, impressive as the dexterous economy is, the overall effect is like reading Cliff's Notes through a gauze darkly.

Poignant details resonate, such as portly Smith's forlorn affection for another's man's neglected dog (gracefully portrayed by Tami Stronach), or his moral slow burn at the treatment of an injured slave chained up in the stables. There's something even comically touching about our unlikely hero's tepid sex fantasies targeting the kindly young wife (Jessica Green) who's been forced to share his room along with her husband (Gregory Steinbruner) as they await sail for a better life in Canada. Crawford does an estimable job of relating the warmth underneath Smith's frozen formality. Stiffly attired, he cuts a pleasantly contradictory path as the preachy, parson-like figure, whose solitary zigzag no doubt conveys deeper meaning to those already acquainted with the fullness of Crace's story. —Charles McNulty


The West Winged

"What happened is this," declare two and then four characters at the start of Louis Broome's Texarkana Waltz, speaking in unison as they cartoonishly set up the lurid Pa-kills-Ma backstory. But what really happens is this: With nothing new to say about sin, punishment, religion, westerns, insanity, or the oedipal complex, Texarkana Waltz (Basic Grammar at the Kirk Theater) spins its wheels for two hours, crosscutting nervously between hit-or-miss satire and more portentous tableaux. Broome and director Allison Narver have dozens of ideas, none of them actually good; they employ an ambitious, kaleidoscope approach to the lingering aftereffects of the spousal murder on children Houston (Adrian LaTourelle) and Dallas (Annie Parisse), but bury the original sin under heavy stylization (country music, a red shawl for blood) and a bushel of dime-store laughs. Successive meltdowns and showdowns ring false; conversely, Waltz's send-ups of oater conventions (Dallas, who shot at but didn't kill his criminous dad, regresses into a boy's-book fantasy) are enthusiastically performed but entirely facile. Why does this horse need kicking now? After Richard Maxwell's glorious Cowboys and Indians, any deconstruction of the genre risks instant irrelevance.

Broome's flashes of dazzle—a litany of song titles with Tulsa in them; a clever, gluteally fixated Shakespearean exchange—sputter into mere distractions; he can't sustain an interesting tone, or a consistent attitude toward his material, for more than a minute. The cowboys incessantly point their rifles and six-shooters into the audience, providing the evening's only real drama: One worries whether the firearms might, by some stagehand mischief, be loaded; whether they might go off; whether that might not, given the circumstances, be some form of mercy. —Ed Park

 
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