At the end of Keith Reddin’s Can’t Let Go, you’re left wondering: Did the playwright start with the funny lip-synch routines, then write inane dialogue to string them together? Or did he insert the music bits to rescue his romantic comedy from its brainlessness? Whatever the creative genesis of this spotty endeavor, Can’t Let Go intersperses eye-rollingly awful comic byplay with some flashy entertainment.
The story centers on Beth (Rebecca Luker), a serious young office worker intent on keeping her job—and her health insurance. We meet her first just outside her cubicle, where a fellow employee named Bill is subjecting her to an anxiety-producing interview about her work habits. Actually, Bill (Brian Hutchison) finally admits, the test questions are merely a ploy to talk to her. “I love you,” he bursts out. A little agitated, Beth quells this overeager attention, announces she has a boyfriend already, and tries to recover her equanimity. Within minutes, she receives two more equally sudden and unwelcome declarations of passion, one from her married boss, Mr. Hopper (Greg Stuhr), and one from her gay colleague Marjorie (Cheyenne Casebier). Just when you think nothing more ridiculous can occur, the stage’s harsh fluorescent lighting shifts to nightclub red, a rock beat blares, and all three suitors lip-synch “I got nothin’ but love for you” while swiveling their hips and imitating performance flourishes worthy of a Vegas lounge act, all to hysterical effect.
Parody seems to be the vernacular of this Keen Company production. The dance pieces, choreographed by Christine Suarez, nail the specifics of popular song and dance styles from the ’40s to the ’90s, from Nashville to Tin Pan Alley. The bald boss in a three-piece suit tears off his tie and juts out his ass in a side-splitting Neil Diamond impersonation, and Beth’s boyfriend Phil (Glen Fleshler) squeaks out the male and female parts of a Motown-style love plaint.
The playwright’s dialogue aims at parody too, but it misses badly. The characters spout clichés, but with few exceptions the writing does not rise to successful satire. In one of the few amusing turns, Beth comforts Bill, “Life’s not fair.” Impressed, he asks her whether she’s just made that up. She pauses a beat, then answers decisively: “Yes.” The exchanges don’t get much wittier than this.
Carl Forsman directs broadly and crisply. The curtain practically snaps up at the beginning of scenes, like a shade on rollers. The dance pieces run smart and stylish, and the dialogue, whatever its quality, moves fast. Luker, known for her Tony-nominated musical roles, does not sing. Yet, as Beth she seems to be reprising her Marion the Librarian role from The Music Man. A plain-vanilla girl, she struggles against her cartoon world with an intense, uptight determination. As Bill, her most credible suitor, Hutchison creates a likable nerd waging war against his own ineptitude. The other players also win comic points for rising over the banality of their lines.
As Beth and Bill bond, confiding personal info that’s utterly outlandish, they strike some lovable sparks. You may feel foolish for caring, but you want them to get together. And there’s something endearing about the old soft-shoe they hoof together as they dance off the stage and into romantic bliss. —Francine Russo
With SARS and monkeypox dotting the media like so many pustules, pathology has achieved particular prominence. The Axis theater has fallen victim to a critical case of zeitgeist. Symptoms, as evinced in the company’s current production of Benjamin Barker’s 1848 A Glance at New York, suggest a diagnosis of tuberculosis, Tourette’s, rickets, and clubfoot. Attired in ashy pallor, fevered cheeks, and begrimed bits of period costume, the assembled cast lurches queasily about the stage, helplessly echoing each line of dialogue and feebly mirroring each gesture.
A Glance at New York was considered a hit comedy in its day. One of the first plays to attempt to portray local working-class life and speech, it even spawned a sheet music hit, “The Folks Are Waiting to See the Fast Steamer” (catchy titles had yet to be invented). The play concerns the adventures of George, a naïf loosed in the city in the company of his swell cousin Harry. The legendary bulk of Mose, butcher and volunteer fireman, also crowds the stage. The hilarity ostensibly reaches its apex when the three men cross-dress so as to infiltrate an all-female bowling salon.
Director Randy Sharp’s motive in rendering this jollity so funereal is opaque. Perhaps she hopes to allude to the alienation of the working class or the terrors of poverty; perhaps what seemed like a really nifty idea in rehearsal metastasized incurably. But at least the profane poetry of Baker’s Bowery b’hoys remains. As William Dean Howells wrote about it, “Good and once precious fragments of literature linger in my memory, as: ‘Mose,’ says he, ‘git off o’ dem hose, or I’ll swat you over der head wid de trumpet.’ ” —Alexis Soloski