Theater archives

Fringe Festival 2009 Reviews


Welcome to our special online coverage of the 13th-annual New York International Fringe Festival. New reviews will be posted every weekday, as we hunt out the best of the fest.

Baby Wants Candy
The Players Theatre
115 MacDougal Street,

Boston College Comes to New York may not have the ring of the next high-grossing Broadway blockbuster, but when performed as a one-time-only, off-the-cuff musical by the improv team Baby Wants Candy, it turns out to be a pretty amusing show. In each installment of Baby Wants Candy’s self-titled act, the seven-member ensemble concocts a makeshift song-and-dance spectacular, complete with a live band and, oh yeah, a storyline—all based around any title the audience supplies.

This particular iteration of Baby Wants Candy featured a gaggle of wide-eyed undergrads (“We’re from Boston College, and none of us have been in love before”), a ravenous killer puma, and a high-stakes chess tournament in Washington Square Park. Representative songs included “Buy Our Stuff” and “Double-Decker Bus”; a few lyrics from Hair snuck into a group number. After about an hour, Boston College petered out, but by then the puma had prevailed, the chess tournament concluded, and the company was extemporizing its way through a grand finale, already looking toward the next ad-libbed extravaganza. MIRIAM FELTON-DANSKY


Love Money, A Recession Rock Musical
By Thompson Davis, Lucas Kavner, and Willie Orbison
Dixon Place
161A Chrystie Street,

The billions that the U.S. government has spent on banking bailouts along with the financial chicanery of people like Bernie Madoff are the targets of Love Money. And though these are apt subjects for stinging satire, the ripped-from-the-headlines topics receive a sophomorically silly treatment from creators Thompson Davis, Lucas Kavner, and Willie Orbison in a show that feels as if it’s been rushed to the stage.

Love Money hinges on whether or not bank chief—and sometimes brutal dominatrix—Sarah (an iron-lunged Ali Kresch) will get a second billion-dollar government subsidy after squandering her first on, among other things, a rock band for her office and a school of pet dolphins. The humor is hardly subtle, and neither are the repetitive (when intelligible) lyrics in the insistent, though promising, rock tunes that pepper the show. Some moments in Money inspire giggles, but when a sight gag with a stuffed dog receives the heartiest laugh in a show, it’s in trouble. ANDY PROPST


By Davide Ambrogi
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street,

Even for a Roman emperor, Nero led a pretty juicy life: He shipwrecked his own mother—then had her executed—watched Rome burn to the ground, and studied with the tragic playwright Seneca (that is, until he ordered Seneca to commit suicide). And if that weren’t dramatic enough, Nero was a performer too, competing in chariot races and singing original compositions for aristocratic audiences.

It’s too bad that the Italian company Artifex—whose new piece, Artifex, is a reexamination of Nero’s life, imported from Nero’s hometown—doesn’t transform this rich material into richer theater. Artifex’s conceit is that, in the moments before Nero’s death, his companions reenact his biography’s high points, performing each episode in a different style—comedy, musical theater, dance.

Unfortunately, these turn out to be an awkward jumble of tuneless chanting, haphazard choreography, and inane pronouncements about the relationships between art, power, and life. There are platitudes, pseudo-togas, and one commedia dell’arte-style mask—but little to move the piece toward theatrical coherence. Maybe the tutelage of a great tragedian would have helped. MIRIAM FELTON-DANSKY


The K of D: An Urban Legend
By Laura Schellhardt
The Cherry Pit
155 Bank Street,

OK, everyone, gather ’round the campfire—playwright Laura Schellhardt has a story to tell. Called The K of D: An Urban Legend, it concerns a girl named Charlotte, whose twin brother is accidentally killed by local creep Johnny Whistler. As legend has it, when Charlotte kissed her dying brother good-bye, she obtained a lethal power—the K of D, or “kiss of death”—causing bizarre things to happen in her small lakeside town.

Exploring how rumors can take on a life of their own, the one-woman show stars the talented Renata Friedman, who gamely tackles more than a dozen parts to vivify Charlotte’s tale. Dressed like a tomboy in a dirty T-shirt and ragged jeans, she jumps on and off the set’s rickety wooden dock, rapidly switching between the very distinct townspeople—one second she’s a precocious bubblegum cigarette–smoking girl, the next she’s Charlotte’s gruff abusive father. Indeed, Friedman spins a fine yarn.

Unfortunately, Schellhardt’s spooky premise never really produces any of the spine-tingling chills or surprises you might hope for. Despite some creepy sound effects, director Braden Abraham could have exploited more of the script’s ghost-story elements to evoke an eerie mood. Where we wanted to feel goose bumps, we just felt bored. ANGELA ASHMAN


Eli and Cheryl Jump
By Daniel McCoy
The Players Loft
115 MacDougal Street,

The beauty of fairy tales is that they’re simple and linear. Daniel McCoy’s Eli and Cheryl Jump revolves around one that Eli (Charles Linshaw) heard nightly as a child. This fable is about a prince who repeatedly escapes fatal accidents. But his good fortune comes at a cost—someone close to him dies in his place. The story beguiled him when he was little and has shaped his view of the world and himself.

McCoy reveals this tale after he’s established the eponymous couple’s plight: They’re attempting to escape a burning building. And because doom seems imminent, we watch the play—which jets back and forth through time—not so much intrigued by how Eli has internalized his mother’s story, but waiting for the moment when Eli survives and Cheryl (Cassandra Vincent) dies. Director Nicole A. Watson’s elegantly minimalist staging creates some tension, and Vincent charms, playing a host of roles, from Eli’s mom to a high school girlfriend—the princesses in this promising, but unnecessarily convoluted attempt at a theatrical fairy tale. ANDY PROPST


A Fine Line
By Emlyn Morinelli and Jennifer Sanders
The Players Loft
115 MacDougal Street,

Emlyn Morinelli and Jennifer Sanders, the authors/performers of A Fine Line, each have extensive improv credits. Sadly, their work here retains some of this genre’s less welcome traits (awkward pauses and interruptions, half-baked sequences that overstay their welcome practically on arrival) minus the compensatory flashes of spontaneity and off-the-cuff ingenuity. The result, directed rather choppily by Gary Rudoren, is a sort of shaggy-doctor tale that mashes a publicity-mad periodontist, unrequited love, and a chipper women’s-prison inmate (she pins Cathy comic strips on her cellmate’s wall) into a scattershot and ultimately unfulfilling comedy.

Both women contribute a decent variety of characters, with Ms. Sanders showing a slight advantage in terms of versatility. And the seemingly disparate threads end up converging in a satisfying and not implausible way. But this is slim consolation given the slightness of many of these threads. A final twist implies that excessive enjoyment of one’s surroundings can tip abruptly into psychotic rage. By this standard, audience members at A Fine Line should be safe. ERIC GRODE


Candide Americana
By Stanton Wood
CSV Flamboyan Theater
107 Suffolk Street,

The original Candide—an 18th-century novella by Voltaire—skewered Enlightenment-era optimism, presenting such unflattering portraits of the French government and clergy that the book was banned immediately. But Candide eluded the censors’ grasp, surviving to become a perennial vehicle for satirizing bigotry and political blindness.

Stanton Wood’s snappy adaptation, Candide Americana, fits squarely into this tradition, selecting a target closer to home: Voltaire’s trek through 18th-century Europe becomes an amusement-park ride through post-9/11 America. Wood’s Candide—naively chasing his true love, and bumping into his tutor, the unflinchingly optimistic Dr. Pangloss, along the way—escapes the Staten Island Ferry crash, an abortion clinic protest, the September 11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and an unmarked CIA detention center. “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the other ones like?” our hero wonders.

Few of Wood’s jokes are new or unexpected, but the quick dialogue—bolstered by Edward Elefterion’s efficient direction and a boisterous ensemble—makes for an amusing, if safe, diversion. Centuries later, Voltaire’s classic is still a sturdy framework for cultural caricature and quick political jabs. MIRIAM FELTON-DANSKY


Union Squared
By David S. Singer
The Players Theatre
115 MacDougal Street,

David S. Singer’s Union Squared would seem to have the right elements for a zippy contemporary comedy. Brad (Levi Sochet) is having an affair with Shannon (Carlina Ferrari), his yoga instructor/masseur, but one day mistakenly sends a text to his wife Rachel (Annie Meisels) rather than Shannon. When Rachel confronts Shannon, the two realize they should join forces to teach Brad a lesson, and ultimately they embark on an affair of their own. Complicating this messy triangle is Brad’s need to maintain the appearance of a happy marriage for his mother Sophie (Anita Keal). She’s about to give him control of a $27 million bank account that could rescue his devastatingly bad investments.

Singer undermines the promise of Union, though, by layering on mammoth amounts of commentary about unscrupulous businessmen and addictive behavior. Director Diana Basmajian only compounds the script’s problems with a flaccid, perfunctory staging that deflates potentially zestful comic situations. The performers—particularly Ferrari and Meisels—attempt to instill some lightness into the production, but it’s not enough to energize this leaden piece. ANDY PROPST


By Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental
New School for Drama
151 Bank Street,

You can leave your cell phone on during the performance of e-Station. That’s because in this dreamlike movement piece—created by Chinese company Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental—cell phones, digital cameras, and other electronic media devices are the stars of the show.

Inspired by the physical techniques of director Ohta Shogo, e-Station sets its performers’ mesmerizingly deliberate motion against technological gadgetry’s speed. With ritual solemnity, the black-clad actors drag computer keyboards along the floor, swath themselves in cable, and pan video cameras across the audience, projecting live feed onto a screen upstage. Cell phones blink like giant fireflies in the darkness.

e-Station’s sensual approach to digital devices helps us see them as objects, not just gateways to images or information. Occasionally, I wanted more from the troupe—a comment on their digital dance, or an electronic apotheosis. But technology is a constant backdrop in the world outside, and as e-Station’s performers inch out of the theater, keyboards and cables in tow, it’s clear that revealing our real-life digital surround—without conclusion or culmination—is the point. MIRIAM FELTON-DANSKY


Harold Pinter Pair
By Harold Pinter
SoHo Playhouse
15 Vandam Street,

Harold Pinter wrote, so often, for three characters at a time—emphasizing not the direct conflict of one-on-one, but the subtle shift of alliances amongst a group. The surreal thing about The Lover and Ashes to Ashes, two Pinter one-acts mounted together under the title Harold Pinter Pair, is how Pinter continues to write for three or more characters even with only two people onstage.

In The Lover (1962), a superficially staid couple has gotten into the habit of multiplying themselves through romantic role-play; the action explodes beyond comedy when one of them tries to haul down the curtain on this dream world. If fantasies augment the dramatis personae of The Lover, schizophrenic nightmares multiply the cast of Ashes to Ashes (1996). A man probes his wife for information about her past, but each question seems merely to trigger some sort of cognitive “reset”—only certain recurring images of sexual and emotional violence seem to unite her fractured selves into a single traumatized whole. In each play, Pinter seasons a simple two-person cast with a dash of schizophrenia in order to explore the kind of psychological and dramatic complexity usually reserved for larger ensembles.

Under the direction of Patrick McNulty, this pairing of plays results in a richer production of each. Chris Thorn and Julianna Zinkel, in The Lover, could handle Pinter’s dry comedy with a bit more precision, but they certainly find the near-psychotic desperation driving the couple’s games—a crucial aspect of the play, and one that might give way to pure farce without the darker Ashes to Ashes as a companion piece. Similarly, Allen McCullough and Christine Marie Brown find the humor in Ashes to Ashes, where it exists. Any sane audience would sit down to a play called Ashes to Ashes expecting a doom-and-gloomy evening at the theater, but, well, we’re not exactly a sane audience after the madcap climax of The Lover. So, instead, we hang on every impish gleam and optimistic glimmer in the script, holding out (far longer than we should) for comfort, for resolution. The steady, morose spiral of the play is therefore all the more devastating. CHRISTOPHER GROBE


And Sophie Comes Too
By Meryl Cohn
The Cherry Pit
155 Bank Street,

“You think everyone is looking at you,” the recently comatose mom Sophie tells the audience, “but they’re not.” That’s something every gratingly self-centered character would do well to grasp in And Sophie Comes Too, a comedy about three dysfunctional adult offspring who finally learn to express themselves to their mother only when she is unconscious. While the notoriously narcissistic Sophie is rendered silent due to a head wound, her single lesbian daughter Barbara, married straight daughter Rose, and transitioning female-to-male son Ray treat her sickbed as a confession booth with sometimes funny, frequently self-pitying results.

But when Sophie comes to, she suffers an after-effect of the injury: the inability to censor herself from sharing everything, be it a new philosophy or a raunchy fantasy. Barbara’s central plotline about trying to adopt a baby from the confines of the closet takes a backseat, tying up tidily in a scheme that’s downright unethical. Any laughs there might have existed in this cliché-packed piece make way for a sappy fable about the capacity to reinvent oneself, “even if you’re old.” SHARYN JACKSON


Population: 8
By Nicholas Gray
The SoHo Playhouse
15 Vandam Street,

It’s easy to imagine why North Dakotans were once desperate enough to try attracting more people to their state by dropping the “North” from its name. Loki, ND—the town and subject of Population: 8, Nicholas Gray’s wistful, contemplative new play—boasts between five and nine residents at any given time. It’s blustery and freezing, and there’s no one else around for miles.

Population: 8 stitches together the tales of Loki’s sweetly quirky inhabitants—a teenage radio host with under 10 listeners, a deaf kid who talks to clouds—into a meditation on the importance of home and community, and the ravages of isolation. Amanda Hagy’s set conjures a tiny, self-contained world: A white clapboard backdrop serves as home and church, and as a screen for projected fantasies and nightmares. Residents track their fluctuating numbers through the ritual updating of the town’s population sign (when it drops to “Population: 6,” trauma ensues). Gray frequently dips into sentimentality, but Marc Stuart Weitz’s clean direction, and an enthusiastic ensemble cast, make Loki worth the trek north. MIRIAM FELTON-DANSKY


Kaddish (or The Key in the Window)
By Allen Ginsberg, adapted by Donnie Mather
Here Arts Center
145 Sixth Avenue,

During his long lifetime, Allen Ginsberg only publicly read “Kaddish,” a long narrative poem mourning his mother’s madness and death, a few times. He once explained that reading it too often risked turning the piece into a “performance” rather than an “event.” The danger in staging the poem, as Donnie Mather does for the Fringe Festival, is that the conventions of theater, relished too much for their own sake, can get in the way of the power of “Kaddish” as a naked, ritual event.

Mather’s staging has its strengths. His representation of Naomi (Ginsberg’s mother) in the later, calmer years of her insanity—when paranoiac visions of anti-Communist spies gave way to tales of cooking lentil soup for God—is simple and touching; and his reading of a posthumously delivered letter from Naomi, at the end of the evening, vibrates with invocatory power. However, Mather and his director (Kim Weild) rely too heavily on the bells and whistles of theatrical production—especially ceaseless and unnecessary underscoring. Mather often hides behind this soundtrack, relying on its rhythmic drive and tonal manipulation, rather than doing what Ginsberg did: mount the platform and let the language—ecstatic, mournful, and playful by turns—course through his body afresh. CHRISTOPHER GROBE


Victoria and Frederick for President
By Jonathan L. Davidson
New School for Drama
151 Bank Street,

The narrator of Jonathan L. Davidson’s Victoria and Frederick for President assures us that the show won’t be a plodding history lesson. Instead, the tale of the 1872 campaign of Victoria Woodhull—the first female presidential candidate—and her running mate, Frederick Douglass, the first African-American nominated for VP, will shock us with its contemporary resonance. Like many campaign promises, though, this guarantee proves false—a historical primer is just what Victoria and Frederick becomes.

Teetering under its weighty exposition, the play duly displays Ulysses S. Grant’s incompetence (his wife calls him “Useless”), Woodhull’s plucky politicking, and Douglass’s oratorical genius. There are high points—like Woodhull’s catfight with Susan B. Anthony—but they’re mostly drowned out by the cast’s overly sincere declamations and swishing Victorian skirts.

Davidson is anxious to link Woodhull’s and Douglass’s historic candidacies to the Obama and Clinton campaigns—2008 election videos (Hillary pronouncing, Obama orating) hammer this point home. But what point, exactly? Should we revel in national progress? Indict our blinkered past? Despite his glut of information, Davidson doesn’t seem to know. MIRIAM FELTON-DANSKY


The Doctor and the Devils
By Dylan Thomas, adapted by Dan Balkin
Milagro Theater
107 Suffolk Street,

“Fallon’s the butcher, Broom’s the thief, and Rock’s the boy who buys the beef.” This jingle sums up both the plot and the intended tone of Dan Balkin’s stage adaptation of The Doctor and the Devils, a little-known Dylan Thomas screenplay. The Faustian tale concerns Dr. Rock, a pioneering anatomist who ignores, to his peril, the dirty deeds of Fallon and Broom, the body-snatchers (later, murderers) who keep his school stocked with bodies for dissection.

I say “intended tone,” because for most of the evening—despite the raw force of Thomas’s language, and an eclectic sound design (by Daniel Carlyon) that can only be described as “badass”—the play feels like an unfortunate cross between a Dickensian skit and a Halloween pageant. Actor David Jenkins caricatures Dr. Rock, making little or no use of the character’s Shavian bluntness and wit. Why would this flat, sententious ideologue attract even one eager disciple, let alone the record-shattering numbers he supposedly does? What’s more, Balkin lets his Fallon and Broom get dragged 10 yards behind the engine of the plot, finding no driving moral or emotional arc of the sort that could take them so quickly from selling cold corpses to killing warm friends. CHRISTOPHER GROBE


By Rob Benson
Manhattan Theatre Source
177 MacDougal Street,

In the program note to his monologue Borderline, writer and performer Rob Benson asks for our “empathy”—an understandable request, given that he based the monologue’s speaker on personal friends of his who fell into the British club-drug scene. But it’s an eerie request, too. After all, “empathy” was one of the original (and more apt) nicknames for MDMA, the chemical compound commonly known as Ecstasy. This uncanny (perhaps unintended) pun sums up this monologue’s method: It’s cheeky, it’s morally complex, and it makes the character’s experience of drug-induced psychosis and fragile recovery seem unsettlingly familiar, even to a presumptively straight-edged audience.

Benson does not condescend to his subject. He’s clearly more interested in consciousness-raising than didacticism or judgment. The narrator’s story of how his first shot at drug-dealing turns into a Robin-Hood-ish redistribution of joy is, for instance, downright charming—if queasily so. But, thanks to the perfectly erratic pace of this lean 50-minute monologue, and thanks to the bizarre, jangling rhymes hidden within Benson’s fluid writing, we never quite lose the sense of latent insanity, impending doom. This speaker, as the “borderline” diagnosis would imply, could go either way. But what is anyone doing to help him go the way of sanity? CHRISTOPHER GROBE


By Anthony “Fascious” Martinez
The Actors’ Playhouse
100 Seventh Avenue South,

The title of Penumbra, a one-man musical by slam poet and hip-hop theater artist Anthony “Fascious” Martinez, refers to the faint echo of light encircling a shadow, as in an eclipse. For Fascious, this sort of shadow’s shadow is all that remains of the models of personal greatness that have given shape to his life. His spiritual ancestors, the pre-colonial inhabitants of Puerto Rico, were crushed by Spanish conquerers long ago. His grandfather, a WWII veteran and a great (if taciturn) man, has been silenced by death. And his father, divorced then imprisoned, was less a shining presence than a luminescent absence. What spark is left to ignite a young spirit?

Fascious, a pint-sized dynamo, creates his own sparks. His language strains at the limits of prose before bursting into impassioned poetry, which eases, with the addition of some synth and a beat, into free-flowing rap. His stories, which range from an idiosyncratic and personal retelling of Socrates’ “Allegory of the Cave” to an eye-witness account of the near-fatal shooting of his father, emerge not in leaden anecdote, but in a series of glinting fragments that leave his main subjects—identity and masculinity—lurking somewhere behind them. But these penumbral glimmers are enough to alert us to the great light beyond. CHRISTOPHER GROBE


Mutti’s After Supper Stories
By Iris Rose
The Cherry Pit
155 Bank Street,

In Mutti’s After Supper Stories, director Iris Rose tries to walk the line between the horror in the dark and twisted tales of the Brother Grimm and the safe, child-friendly packaging they usually come in, but she ends up leaning toward the latter. Rose sets a handful of the more well-known fables, including “Little Red Cap” and “Hansel & Gretel,” to folksy guitar tunes by Hugh Hales-Tooke and casts an entire family of DePaulas (mom Noelle, and kids Juliet, Colin, and Lily) to enact them. The performances of the two youngest siblings as several famous Grimm characters are disciplined and promising, and the patchwork and Velcro set is refreshingly, functionally no-fi. While the stories remain more disturbing than escapist, Mutti is no Coraline. Rose, Hales-Tooke and the DePaula clan don’t get very far mining the psychological depths of tales in which little ones are disowned by their parents, or terrorized simply for taking a walk in the woods. SHARYN JACKSON


Citizen Ruth
By Mark Leydorf and Michael Brennan
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane,

Citizen Ruth, a wickedly funny musical send-up of the abortion debate, with book and lyrics by Mark Leydorf and music by Michael Brennan, concerns Ruth Stoops, a foul-mouthed, paint-huffing mother who’s already given up four children for adoption when she lands back in jail, pregnant again. But a judge makes her a scandalous deal: He’ll drop the charges against her if she has an abortion.

Based on the 1996 film by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Citizen Ruth is scathing political satire of the best kind, evenhandedly skewering both sides—the Bible-thumping Baby Savers who want Ruth to keep her baby and the militant feminists who want her to “choose” abortion—with a script that’s hilariously over the top and up-to-date (“Ruth is one mother in our jihad!” earnestly sings a Baby Saver). Howard Shalwitz, cofounder and artistic director of the edgy Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington D.C., deftly directs the talented 12-member cast, who play more than 30 parts. Standouts include the terrific Garrett Long as the raunchy, clueless Ruth and Janet Dickinson as the new-agey feminist Diane. You’ll probably go to hell for laughing along, but it’s worth the risk. ANGELA ASHMAN


La Ronde
By Arthur Schnitzler
Here Arts Center
145 Sixth Avenue,

In turn-of-the-century Vienna, sexual obsession was everywhere: While Freud plumbed the depths of human carnality, Arthur Schnitzler was writing La Ronde, a catalogue of modern desire (and a testament to his own erotic obsessions—Schnitzler reportedly kept a daily tally of his orgasms). Each of La Ronde’s stark scenes features a seduction and its aftermath, linking a series of lovers in a libidinous daisy chain: a prostitute with a soldier, the soldier with a parlor maid, and so on.

Larry Biederman’s spare production sums up the communal desperation, and the fleeting pleasures, in Schnitzler’s amorous merry-go-round. Jumbles of neon tubing light up to identify successive characters, all played by Alyson Weaver and Ken Barnett—the condensed casting succinctly suggesting the universality, and anonymity, of desire and conquest. An enormous white sheet billows upstage, by turns a projection screen, a curtain concealing dirty deeds, and lovers’ rumpled sheets. Not all of Biederman’s efforts pay off—there are unfinished voice-over experiments, and some misguided opening video—but Schnitzler’s social portrait, harsh and prescient, hasn’t lost its bite. MIRIAM FELTON-DANSKY


All Over
By Elizabeth Audley
The Actors’ Playhouse
100 Seventh Avenue South,

In this one-woman show, writer-performer Elizabeth Audley describes her recent car trip across America through a series of monologues. Retracing her drive from Wyoming to Oregon to San Francisco and back across the country, Audley shares her thoughts on each locale: “Yellowstone Park is the best place I’ve ever been to!” “I think Utah is actually, like, magical!” and, upon drinking Dr. Pepper while looking at the Grand Canyon, “Dr. Pepper is DELICIOUS, the Grand Canyon is AMAZING!” It’s not exactly This American Life.

While Audley’s reflections on America and Americana aren’t always profound, her confessions of twenty/thirty-something paralysis certainly feel authentic. Midway through All Over, Audley plays a tape she recorded while having an emotional breakdown somewhere out West. Her voice comes through the theater’s speakers: high-pitched and sobbing, it’s saying something we can almost understand. But we can’t, so instead of words we just hear this beautiful human voice, in pain. It’s an incredibly self-exposing moment. If the writer-actress could extend this kind of direct connection beyond the one or two isolated scenes in which it occurs, as well as cut 10 minutes of the show’s 80-minute run time, we might be ready to fall over All Over. BEN BEITLER


America’s Next Top Bottom: Cycle 5!
By Efrain Schunior
The Actors’ Playhouse
100 Seventh Avenue,

Walking into America’s Next Top Bottom anticipating high art is like walking into a leather bar hoping to meet a polo-and-chino-wearing preppy guy. But even with the lowest of expectations, Top Bottom disappoints. Rather than offering a comic spin on reality shows by focusing on the sexual preferences of the five contestants, the play—created and directed by Efrain Schunior—regurgitates bad queer camp.

A tacky Southern housewife and a drugged-out club refugee who’s dressed a bit like Liza M. in Cabaret, bowler hat and all, are the judges. The contestants—from the lisping, pseudo-Irish Corky Adaire to the crassly stereotyped Asian Harajuku Sulu to the new-agey Glitter—certainly seem like they’d be submissive in bed, but the show’s challenges—creating poetry using three random words and plate spinning—have absolutely nothing to do with the subject. They’re there just to get cheap laughs. To their credit, the guys improvise well within the context of the lame setups, but it’s not enough to elevate the piece above bottom-tier comedy. ANDY PROPST


Camp Super Friend
By Bethany Wallace
The Cherry Lane Theater
38 Commerce Street,

Does it signify that, before my 14th birthday, I had attended both Christian Camp and Jewish Camp? My parents’ religious confusion aside, I don’t remember much about Christian Camp—Legos, vague guilt, etc. One memory of Jewish Camp, however, survives.

On the last night of camp, a counselor named Zeke led me and 10 other painfully pubescent boys to the top of a hill. There, Zeke asked us to appreciate the beautiful stars. To savor the Northern Californian air. To partake in prayer, then in silent meditation. Finally, after the mood of serious companionship had been set, Zeke invited us to ask him any question we could think of. Any question. Go. Without hesitation, a fellow camper asked the only thing we lost, pimply Jewish boys wanted to know.

“So have you ever gotten a blowjob?”

Zeke had not. When no one raised his hand for a follow-up, we descended the hill in silence.

No such dirtiness occurs in Camp Super Friend, which is a nice show about the son of a superhero who learns to make friends while away at a summer camp for superheroes. It is part of Fringe Jr. and probably appropriate for children ages 5 through 9; it is usually performed at elementary schools; audience participation is a possibility. It would have been good if the show’s promoters had made all this a little clearer before we arrived, but no hard feelings. BEN BEITLER


Some Editing and Some Theme Music
By Jean Ann Douglas & Company
Robert Moss Theatre
440 Lafayette Street,

“Hi, uh, my name’s Chris? And …” The upglides, the filler, the halting syntax—we all recognize it by now—the language of the vlog. Well, it’s been nearly three years since “You” were Time’s Person of the Year, and now (what took so long?) the Fringe Festival has a play written in “your” language—except, in classic Fringe style, Jean Ann Douglas’s Some Editing and Some Theme Music is actually a meta-analysis of identity in the age of YouTube, mixing live and pre-recorded video diaries with snippets of commentary on ye olde paper kind: notably, those of Samuel Pepys and Virginia Woolf.

The company’s energy can be infectious. A rapid-fire rendition, by actor Evan Prizant, of possible opening lines for his vlogs epitomizes the actors’ charm and aplomb. But the piece’s concept is too unwieldy for them to carry the whole way. When, about a half-hour into the performance, the actors began to repeat the show from the beginning, this time sotto voce and with Director’s Cut DVD-style commentary playing over the loudspeaker, deep sighs began to rise up in the audience. The point had already been made—and made, I should say, in a compelling and entertaining fashion: Nearly all naked self-expression is, in fact, painted over with layers of mediation. But now must we watch them dry? CHRISTOPHER GROBE


The Boys Upstairs
By Jason Mitchell
The Soho Playhouse
15 Vandam Street,

Hilarious zingers fly in Jason Mitchell’s The Boys Upstairs, a new comedy that’s Sex in the City meets Boys in the Band. The play centers on perpetually single Josh (Nic Cory), a trust-fund baby who aspires to become the gay Carrie Bradshaw of his generation. The Bradshaw-like questions that Josh offers up about queer life between scenes are generally inspired by his two best friends, roommate Seth (Joel T. Bauer)—who’s fallen, inexplicably as far as Josh can tell, for an older guy—and Ashley (Kristen-Alexzander Griffith), who spends most evenings on the couch in Josh’s apartment. Ashley is generally waking up with the guy she picked up the night before. (David A. Rudd ably plays the tricks and boyfriends who parade through the apartment.)

Director Matthew Corozine’s zestfully speedy staging serves this light-as-air confection well. More importantly, he ensures that his ensemble delivers the characters with emotional truth—particularly Griffith, who imbues Ashley with a grand combination of Blanche DuBois’s vulnerability and RuPaul’s fierceness. Ashley has a heart of gold, and so too, does The Boys Upstairs. ANDY PROPST


The Books
By Michael Edison Hayden
The Cherry Pit
155 Bank Street,

The Books is the post-golden-shower-literary-discussion romantic dramedy you’ve been waiting for. Tender, cheeky and only a tiny bit maudlin, Michael Edison Hayden’s charged two-hander unspools a series of welcome twists on a patently ludicrous concept.

Nearly the entire play, directed with unobtrusive skill by Matt Urban, takes place either during or immediately after a series of S/M sessions between a burly handyman (Scott David Nogi, quite good) and an Egyptian-American dominatrix (Aadya Bedi, even better) in his cluttered Astoria apartment. As wordy and even glib as the sessions are, they pale in comparison to the increasingly probing discussions (many of them plumbing the client’s well-thumbed piles of books for psychological insight) that follow them.

The dom is also an aspiring actress, and her laments about the clichéd roles she’s offered lose some of their effectiveness when the actress delivering them is wearing a latex bustier and stiletto-heel boots. But Hayden’s ear for topical dialogue and crisp emotional reversals culminate in a weirdly gentle finale that comes awfully close to transcending its hackneyed nature. Henry James and James Joyce must be spinning in their graves to hear their works discussed in this context. (Well, maybe not Joyce.) But who would have pegged Isabel Archer as such a good subject for pillow talk? ERIC GRODE


By Kirk Wood Bromley
The Players Loft
115 MacDougal Street,

This one-man show about the performer’s schizophrenia could evoke a modicum of empathy or pity. But neither writer-director Kirk Wood Bromley’s work nor Dan Berkey’s performance in Remission inspire these emotions. Instead, brought pretentiously to the stage, Berkey’s nightmares prove annoying.

After a cloyingly poetic prologue in which Berkey explains that his schizophrenia is in remission, the play recounts the details of Berkey’s life. A barrage of words and calculated lyricism, delivered passionately, but frequently unintelligibly, tell of parental emotional abuse and sexual abuse by a teacher. These events precede the voices and visions that Berkey experiences throughout his life, an existence that also includes substance abuse and, ultimately, homelessness. The play seesaws—appropriately— between moments of lucidity and manic behavior, but these latter sequences, which include one involving an inflatable sex doll and red paint, cause nervous smiles instead of dismayed compassion for his suffering. Relief sets in when Berkey recounts the post-rehab vision that led to him flush his meds, a first step toward his disease’s remission, but only because it means the piece is concluding. ANDY PROPST


The Most Mediocre Story Never Told!
By Jay Sefton
The Actors’ Playhouse
100 Seventh Avenue,

August in New York means a windfall of sundresses, an embarrassment of tourists—and, yes, thanks to the Fringe Festival, a glut of one-person shows. The Most Mediocre Story Never Told!, Jay Sefton’s contribution to the genre, is different, though, insofar as it’s premised on your being sick and tired of actors and their confessions.

Part parody, part earnest specimen of the form, Sefton’s schizophrenic performance has him playing two selves clashing over how to narrate the same life story. Which will prevail: the self-aggrandizing “authenticity” of a crotch-grabbing cad, or the painful sincerity of a sensitive lad? Manly mockery of the confessional monologue, or (queer?) participation in it?

Sefton wants it both ways and gets neither. Like a cocky magician, he’d like to show you the machinery yet leave you, despite yourself, believing in magic. It can be done, no doubt (as it arguably was, in the realm of prose memoir, by Dave Eggers), but the magic had better be damned good, and the machinery ingenious. Sefton’s sincerity and parody don’t enrich one another by contrast; they cancel each other out. This work isn’t heartbreaking enough—nor the genius sufficiently staggering—for this tactic to succeed. CHRISTOPHER GROBE


38 Witnessed Her Death, I Witnessed Her Love: The Lonely Secret of Mary Ann Zielonko
By LuLu LoLo
Robert Moss Theatre
440 Lafayette Street,

The rather labored title of LuLu LoLo’s engrossing 38 Witnessed Her Death, I Witnessed Her Love: The Lonely Secret of Mary Ann Zielonko instantly brings to mind the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, whose late-night cries for help resulted in 38 witnesses and zero calls to the police. With so much ensuing talk of those men and women and their collective guilt, it’s easy to forget that there was a 39th guilty party in Kew Gardens that night; his name was Winston Moseley, and LoLo’s all-but-affectless recounting of his confession sees to it that audiences won’t forget him any time soon.

But Moseley isn’t the focus of LoLo’s solo show. Nor is it A.M. Rosenthal, the New York Times editor who assigned the initial article on the bystanders. After opening 38 Witnessed Her Death with depictions of these two men, LoLo devotes the second half to MaryAnn Zielonko, an even more anonymous name in this sad story. Genovese’s sexual orientation wasn’t disclosed until decades after her death: She was a lesbian, and Zielonko was her partner. LoLo vividly depicts the floodgates opening in Zielonko after 40 years of mourning in silence.

With her raspy contralto and Emma Thompson–meets–Martha Graham visage, LoLo is no Sarah Jones–style chameleon; each of her characters has a similar look and sound, and she was wise to focus on just three of them. (Actually, dropping Rosenthal would have done the piece no harm.) 38 Witnessed Her Death—directed smoothly by the modern-dance choreographer Jody Oberdorfer, who has also created a pair of genially racy duets for herself and Shila Tirabassi as Genovese/Zielonko surrogates—is all the more captivating for the relative conventionality of Zielonko’s thoughts. She dwells on the specifics of the evening, she remains furious at those (directly and indirectly) responsible, she objects to the funeral outfit that Genovese’s parents pick out, she misses her lover. They are, in short, utterly predictable statements—and yet we had to wait almost a half-century before she could give voice to them. ERIC GRODE


MoMA Rock Concert Musical
By Richard Caliban
CSV Flamboyan Theater
107 Suffolk Street,

Writer-director Richard Caliban, onetime artistic director of Cucaracha Theater, could be on to something with MoM, which imagines a quintet of suburban mothers forming a rock band as an outlet for their frustrations and achieving global fame. It’s a little like Desperate Housewives on a Susan Boyle adventure.

Caliban’s songs are a terrific mix of styles, and the lyrics, while not elegant, aim for humor and genuine emotion—often inspiring both. While Caliban’s characters intrigue, the book proves ungainly, lurching forward from the group’s first appearance through their meteoric rise, never fully committing to a narrative that’s either linear or pure flashback. As a result, the soap opera clichés that slip into the script—one woman’s drug and alcohol abuse and a pair of the moms becoming lovers—feel like forced attempts at creating drama. Thankfully, these surmountable problems are diminished by the engaging and appealing performances from the company, particularly Donna Jean Fogel and Bekka Lindström. A life for MoM post-Fringe is undeniable. ANDY PROPST


A Long Walk Home
By Lauren Marie Albert
Robert Moss Theatre
440 Lafayette Street,

It wouldn’t be a Fringe Festival without the likes of A Long Walk Home, an undoubtedly heartfelt, wildly indulgent journey deep into creator-director-performer Lauren Marie Albert’s navel. From the banal conceit (a jilted lover nurses her bruised ego by affecting a series of bad accents before achieving a level of female solidarity through song) to the passable but relatively uninventive snippets of dance that punctuate her material, this Long Walk is as exasperating as the title would indicate.

A pair of women—one in ballet slippers, one wielding a guitar—join Albert for some of the more intricate dances as well as a handful of vaguely Appalachian-style folk ballads. It’s during one of the latter sequences, which includes the lyric “I reach out to the midnight of you,” that one’s mind turns to its own temporal musings. Musings along the lines of “This is one of the shorter Fringe shows I’m seeing, right? Right??” It is, and in less time than it takes to commute to Midtown, the lights go up and the crapshoot that is the Fringe Festival begins again. ERIC GRODE


Pie-Face! The Adventures of Anita Bryant
By David Karl Lee
Actor’s Playhouse
110 Seventh Avenue South,

Those who missed her reign as Florida orange juice spokesperson and anti-gay evangelist can get a history lesson on the downfall of a wholesome entertainer in Pie-Face! The Adventures of Anita Bryant. Nailing Bryant’s appearance in flowery frocks, hair perfectly smoothed and flipped, writer-actor David Karl Lee lipsynchs the singer’s record hits of the ’50s and ’60s, recites her musings on religion and “homa-sec-sha-ality,” stars in faux newsreels about Bryant’s antics, and unearths historical footage and texts. The show peaks early with a screening of a gay assailant mussing the former beauty queen’s china-doll complexion with a pie in the face. “At least it’s a fruit pie,” she concedes in this YouTube treasure. For much of the show, Lee re-enacts the extensive interviews Bryant granted Rolling Stone journalist Ken Kelley in 1978. Her damning words are hilarious and appalling enough to be milked for all they’re worth, but the momentum dissipates when director Kenny Howard insists upon a deeper emotional response: Lee’s sermon on being yourself and a closing slideshow of gay Pride pictures proves more sugary than a tall glass of OJ. SHARYN JACKSON


Dirty Stuff

By Johnny McGovern
Actors Playhouse
110 Seventh Avenue South,

There’s a moment in Dirty Stuff—when a nerdy, closeted gay man sings a duet with a gay pimp about the virtues of boys’ soccer teams—that demonstrates how multi-dimensional a solo show can be. As Jonny McGovern’s timbre hops from nebbishy whine to Audrey 2-style bass, one forgets that both of these voices are coming from one button-cute performer. McGovern is an NYC nightlife personality and comedian who’s found fame on Logo’s Big Gay Sketch Show, but in this Courtney Munch-directed pastiche, he spins an elaborate tale of five wayward folks who discover their full potential after a night of gay clubbing. The lily-white McGovern slips seamlessly into the roles of the closet-case, a pimp called the Velvet Hammer, an Arabic fashion designer, a washed-up blaxploitation film star named Chocolate Puddin’, and Puddin’s trailer park neighbor Lurleen Famous. The big-haired, tight-dressed Lurleen thrills when she first steps into Club Shelter and notices how the “women” there look exactly like her; indeed, McGovern’s story proposes that the microcosm of a gay nightclub isn’t so different from the mind of a fame-hungry Southern white-trash teen. It’s quite the revelation. SHARYN JACKSON