The Midtown International Theatre Festival might want to change its name to just the Midtown Theatre Festival. Though there’s a diverse group of artists on this year’s Raw Space program, most are American. True, a few of the shows have foreign settings, but if the two productions viewed are any indication, the sensibility isn’t particularly worldly. Given the dire global situation, theater can no longer get a free pass for good intentions. The stakes are too high and the conflicts too complex for tolerating provincialism—especially from a festival claiming to be otherwise.
City of Dreams, a new musical by composer Joseph Zellnik with book and lyrics by David Zellnik, takes place in the Vienna of Sigmund Freud and Gustav Klimt. Unlike Martha Clarke’s currently reprised Vienna: Lusthaus, which imagistically examines the same era to explore the cultural underpinnings of the subsequent 20th-century political nightmare, the Zellnik brothers tell a sappy story about Crown Prince Rudolf (Ben Nordstrom), the 30-year-old heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Poor Rudolf, obsessed with a woman he cannot have, rebels against his marriage to a woman he has no feeling for. This conflicted (and ostensibly independent-minded) young man represents the hope of the Viennese intelligentsia, though his sulk at the repressive hypocrisy of his country seems more Gen X than Hamlet.
Much is made of the way Mary (Megan McGinnis), the fresh young thing who awakens Rudolf from his melancholy stupor, resembles a young girl who died (sniff, sniff) after waiting for the Prince in the rain. But even more stomach churning is the way history functions as a decorative backdrop to a doomed romance. Not even Freud and Klimt, who serve as choral commentators on the Prince’s life, can convincingly connect the dots between his romantic fate and the future of their city. Yes, the unfortunate demise of the love-maddened Prince leads to a double suicide and the naming of the even more jinxed Archduke Ferdinand as successor to the Austro-Hungarian Emperor. But the complicated course of epochal events loses something when exploited as soap opera fodder.
The Zellniks demonstrate a basic musical-theater competence, which is another way of saying fanciful banality. The piano score waltzes pleasantly under lyrics that float straight into sentimental oblivion. Even the title song, “City of Dreams,” a paean to fin-de-siÁecle Vienna, can’t move beyond the postcard imagery of the “prettiest girls” and “wittiest men” dancing all night in the city’s “glow.” Perhaps no one should expect Arthur Schnitzler like ambivalence from serviceable songs, but the gap between the artistic richness of the period locale and the tourist-y treatment seems embarrassingly wide.
In keeping with the superficiality of the material, director Michael Alltop adopts a genially undemanding approach. His shoestring production imposes nothing ponderous, allowing the young cast simply to enjoy their roles, cliché though they may be. Nordstrom and McGinnis make a winning couple. Pity they don’t have more time together onstage. Though neither character is drawn with depth, the musical lifts whenever they gaze into each other’s vacantly pretty eyes.
An even less internationally ambitious festival offering, David Kosh’s I Love New York—What’s You’re Excuse? ponders the age-old question: How the hell can we live in this town? That the issues have grown more terrifying post 9-11 doesn’t have any bearing on this rather old-school variety show. In a series of sketches peopled with kooks, Kosh probes the obsessive love-hate relationship with a city that keeps us groaning about our rent even as we jealously scan the listings for more expensive digs.
The situations are familiarly cute. A woman who can’t stop jabbering about being the 1961 Twist Queen of Orchard Beach drives the sport-page-reading man beside her so nuts that he eventually explodes with the burdensome story of his life. A rap dance featuring three cell-phone addicts celebrates the current age of nonstop talk. A surreal nightmare at Zabar’s forces a fed-up husband to consider moving out of the city while his pregnant wife insists he go back for her beloved green olives stuffed with garlic. The soul of a collating office-boy is fought over by a paper-pushing manager and a paper-tossing temp. An exclusive French restaurant that palms off peanut butter and jelly as a gourmet entrée provokes a showdown between chef and diner that makes hash of phony urban pretense.
Trite as much of the material is, there’s a neurotic whimsy that director Ann Bowen’s cast delivers with Big Apple abandon. Barry Pomerantz as the beleaguered Mets fan, who just wants to enjoy a moment of quiet on the bus, and Evangeline Johns as his chattering tormentor are especially adept at bringing a full-throttle hysteria to their roles.
Too bad, then, that the production is so sloppily staged, with lights blinking senselessly and settings haphazardly defined. But while the evening may grow increasingly unsteady (not to mention long), nearly all of the skits culminate in a kernel of wisdom that, while not particularly far-ranging in scope, is easily portable beyond New York.