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Can a Finely Tuned Ensemble Rescue ‘New York Animals’ From Death-by-Cliché?


You know that feeling you get while scanning a diner menu? At first the pages seem to offer impossible variety: every dish, every variation. After a while, though, it all starts to look the same. And you realize you’ve had it all before.

That’s what it’s like to watch New York Animals, a new play by Steven Sater with songs by Sater and Burt Bacharach that features, among other typical New Yorkish scenes, a diner customer who can’t make up her mind. The piece’s title promises a gamut of the human zoo that is NYC, but mostly the show presents a parade of tired New Yawker tropes straight from Central Casting. Kinda like Seinfeld B-roll.

It can be a fine line between archetype and stereotype, but Sater’s characterizations tend to the latter while clearly intending the former. The play’s premise is like La Ronde without the sex: A succession of New Yorkers’ lives intersect and collide, giving us a musical glimpse of the majestic human pageant all around us — or something like that.

In a series of interlocking vignettes interwoven with Bacharach songs, the five-person ensemble shows us the following specimens (among many others): distraught housewife with neglectful husband and stroppy housecleaner; grouchy homeless guy; Park Avenue grande dame; desperate urban single gal; gay best friend; overeducated cabbie; gum-snapping secretary; obsessive-compulsive who eats the same entrée at the diner every night. You get the idea. The play is set during the 1990s, which allows characters to look each other up in the phone book and complain about gentrification having reached 88th Street. (Ha!)

The songs come in two basic flavors: torch song, and funky number heavy on the doo-wops.

Director Eric Tucker, who plays several of the roles himself, gives New York Animals a concert setting, which means its ambulatory clichés chase each other around a grand piano and in the aisles amid café tables. Between scenes (and sometimes during), a pretty solid band and some mellifluous singers — Jo Lampert, in particular, is a crooning delight — perform the tunes. These come in two basic flavors: torch song, full of melancholic remorse for some lost romantic opportunity or other; and funky number, heavy on the doo-wops. And so the play’s scenes generally get infused with either dreamy regret or urban boppin’ ’round.

Beyond the music and an 8-millon-lives-in-the-naked-city appreciation for the breadth of human experience — your cabbie might be a particle physicist! Your delivery boy might be a connoisseur of Middle Eastern weaving! — not much holds the evening together. Though the actors are engaging, they deal in broad strokes, heavy on the accents and mannerisms, to delineate their many characters.

It’s admirable that the collaborators avoided yoking everything to some contrived plot — but they also avoided drama more or less altogether. Toward the end, some of the animals congregate at a hospital emergency room. But it’s mostly just a chance to get more of them onstage at the same time.

Sater and Bacharach paint a very monochromatic picture of a many-hued city. There are precisely two Latino characters: the housecleaner (sketched in with an outlandish accent) and the delivery boy. Zero other characters are anything but white-ish or Jew-ish. You’ll probably see a more exotic and captivating sampling of Gotham fauna on your walk back to the subway after the curtain drops.

New York Animals
By Steven Sater and Burt Bacharach
New Ohio Theatre
154 Christopher Street