Thursday, June 30, 2016

33. Review: THE PAPER HAT GAME (seen June 29, 2016)

“It’s Only a Paper Hat, Way Up on a Cardboard Stage”
Stars range from 5-1.
With artists like Basil Twist leading the way in recent years, puppet theatre has moved rapidly into new and ever more complex technological avenues, combining video, music, scenography, and puppetry in innovative ways, often with an undercurrent of sociological significance. A good example is The Paper Hat Game, originally created and directed by Torry Bend in 2011 at Duke University, where she’s an assistant professor.
Photo: Craig Bares.
The Paper Game takes audiences on a surrealistic subway ride through a Chicago-like city, both inside and outside the cars, to tell—“express” might be a better word—the story of an actual person named Scotty Iseri. In the play, life seems a bore for Scotty until, one day, after donning a paper hat (the kind that look like a little sailboat) he makes from an abandoned newspaper on the train, he begins doing so for his fellow passengers, hoping to brighten their day. Some reject his hats, but others not only accept them but put them on, and soon he has a local reputation as the Paper Hat Guy. We even hear examples of their reactions, for and against. Eventually, the Paper Hat Guy’s altruism meets the harsh reality of distrust.
Photo: Craig Bares.
The narrative—which touches on themes of alienation, loneliness, and the difficulties of communication within the urban jungle—is a bit fuzzy and lacks fullness; even the visuals aren’t always immediately accessible. However, the overall combination of video, puppetry, and multiple scenic devices showing the urban landscape from both interior and exterior perspectives is exceptional.
Photo: Craig Bares.
The stage itself is no bigger than a decent-sized, flat-screen TV, so the further you are from it the more indistinct some elements may be, but there’s so much to look at and from so many angles that the visuals, whose viewpoints keep changing, never grow tedious. The images capture the essence of urban life, peering into the privacy of apartments, going into tunnels, traversing cables and pipes, climbing skyscrapers, soaring over the streets. At times, video and live images are so well integrated it’s hard to tell one from the other, or where one begins and the other leaves off.
Photo: Craig Bares.
The magic of Raquel Salvatella de Prada’s (also on the Duke faculty) unique video sequences, Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s remarkable lighting, and the haunting sound design of Colbert Davis and Matt Hubbs, together with Aaron Haskell’s puppet designs and Kate Brehm’s movement direction, combine to create an inventive, if sometimes bumpy, 50-minute trip. A crew of five puppeteers (Steve Ackerman, Drina Dunlap. Yoko Myoi, Angela Olson, and Alex Young) keeps the show moving. You’d be wise to accept the invitation to go backstage afterward, where you can see up close the show’s raw materials. You’ll also see just how cramped are the quarters in which these dedicated artists work under conditions of controlled chaos to create such unity of expression.
Photo: Craig Bares.
As my Facebook friends know, I’ve been posting a series of photos of people doing what they do on New York’s subway trains and platforms, always with an alliterative “s” caption: subways are for sleeping (of course), subways are for saxophones, subways are for scriptures, subways are for singers, subways are for soldiers, subways are for smooching, etc. I myself might be the Subways are for Snapshots guy. What, I wonder, would be the caption for the subject of The Paper Game if I caught him doing his thing in New York? Subways are for . . .
Photo: Craig Bares.


3-Legged Dog Arts and Technology Center
80 Greenwich Street, NYC
Through July 17

Friday, June 24, 2016

32. Review: THE HEALING (seen June 23, 2016)

"Onward, Christian Scientists?"
Stars range from 5-1.

A number of recent plays (Antlia Pneumatica, The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family: Hungry, Out of the Mouths of Babes, etc.) have taken cinema’s The Big Chill premise of having a number of disparate friends gather to mourn a deceased acquaintance (friend, spouse, lover, whatever), giving them a chance to rake over the coals of the past as they come to terms not only with the lost one but with themselves and their relationships.
Shannon DeVido, John McGinty, Jamie Petrone. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The same trope inspires The Healing, Samuel D. Hunter’s (The Whalesensitive but unsentimental, intermittently funny, overly chatty, and  thinly plotted new play. It reunites four friends in their thirties who, as disabled children, regularly attended a faith-based camp that catered to their special needs. The camp leader, a woman called Joan (Lynne Lipton), was a Christian Scientist who insisted their ailments were a sign of spiritual illness that could be cured by the power of prayer. 

One of their campmates, Zoe (Pamela Sabaugh), herself a devout Christian Scientist, appears to have killed herself (she was found frozen in the snow several feet from her home). They’ve flown out to her rural Idaho home from around the country to attend her funeral and help with her personal affairs; this includes packing up the kitschy curios and gewgaws decorating the walls and shelves of her home (nicely captured in Jason Simms’s design). As a reminder of Zoe’s tchotchke mania (a defense against loneliness), a TV remains on much of the time tuned to a shopping channel (the remote’s been misplaced).

Sharon (Shannon DeVido) and Bonnie (Jamie Petrone) are both in wheelchairs (Sharon’s electric, Bonnie’s manual), while Donald (David Harrell), who’s gay, and Laura (Mary Theresa Archbold) lack a hand and arm, respectively. (The script, though, apart from saying Sharon is in a wheelchair, doesn’t designate any disabilities for the actors.) Also present is Bonnie’s hearing-impaired but lip-reading boyfriend of nine months, Greg (John McGinty). The excellent . ensemble belongs to a company called Theater Breaking Through Barriers, founded in 1979 and dedicated to artists with disabilities.
As they reminisce, the friends ponder what might have driven Zoe to take her own life; could she have suffered a crisis of faith? Much of this registers more as small talk (and small arguments), such as whether someone is or isn’t a bad person or the value of religion as a source of solace for the lonely and depressed; unhappiness is a thread, although not in any sense that makes these people different from any others, disabled or not. 
Shannon DeVido, David Harrell, Jamie Petrone. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Flashbacks (smartly indicated by shifts in Alejandro Fajardo’s lighting) take us to the time of a visit by Sharon to Zoe when she was ill, allowing a full-throated discussion between the pious Zoe, who refuses medical help, and the irreligious Sharon, who secretly feeds her troubled friend antibiotics to cure her strep throat. Their dispute over the relative value of faith and medicine has dramatic value but is undercut by Hunter's hints that Zoe's piety may be psychotic.
Mary Theresa Archbold, John McGinty. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Toward the end, a forgiveness-seeking Joan shows up. What she says seems contrived but she and the simmering, cynical Sharon, whose complaints were responsible for shutting down the camp, do engage in a vivid conversation, with Sharon blaming Joan for Zoe's death; slowly, the play’s title comes into focus.
Mary Theresa Archbold, John McGinty. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Regardless of the actors’ particular physical problems, there’s nothing wrong with their acting, each character being completely real and in the moment; DeVido makes a particularly strong impression because of her role's sharp edges but there really aren't any weak links. Hunter has helped greatly by drawing each with great care, showing them as fully dimensional, warts and all. Director Stella Powell-Jones’s pause-filled, 90-minute, intermissionless production tends toward occasional sluggishness, however, and only a few scenes have conventional dramatic punch. 

Perhaps some of The Healing's ailments would benefit from a visit to the play doctor; as a piece of theatre, though, its sweet cast makes the medicine go down.


Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd Street, NYC
Through July 16

31. Review: STET (seen June 22, 2016)

"When the Messenger Is the Story"
Stars range from 5-1.
Campus rape, said to have reached “epidemic proportions,” may be a major subject du jour but few plays have tackled it head on. Among the rare examples prior to Kim Davies’s noteworthy but ultimately unfulfilling Stet, now at the Abingdon Theatre Company, is Paul Downs Colaizzo's Really, Really, seen at the Lortel in 2013, and Naomi Iizuka’s Good Kids, which thus far has been shown only on college campuses. The latter is based on an actual case that took place at Steubenville High School in 2012, which also was dramatized as a Lifetime TV movie; Stet is likewise advertised as “being based on a true story,” although the specifics of where or when (University of Virginia, 2014) are never mentioned.

Jocelyn Kuritsky, Bruce McKenzie. Photo: Ben Strothmann.
On the one hand, that might not matter, as the assault in the play that inspires a magazine’s investigative reporter to write about it could have occurred at Anywhere University, USA. On the other, director Tony Speciale (who’s credited with having “developed” the play with Davies and actress Jocelyn Kuritsky) notes in the program that Stet’s principal inspiration was a highly controversial Rolling Stone article (by the unmentioned Sabrina Erdely) called “A Rape on Campus,” which turned out to be so seriously flawed that the magazine had to retract it.

This information, which not all playgoers may recall (or read in the program), puts the play in another light entirely. Without it, you may disagree with the ambitious, ethically-challenged reporter’s inappropriate methods (such as keeping her recorder on when she says she’s turned it off), and quarrel with her unprofessional investigating (like failing to interview the alleged rapists) but you’ll likely sympathize. at first, with her desire to examine the effects on a rape victim of her horrendous experience.
Jocelyn Kuritsky, Jack Fellows. Photo: Ben Strothmann.
While many issues related to campus rape are expressed in Stet (editorial lingo for “let it stand” as a note to retain writing that has been revised or deleted), including the bureaucratic obstructions with which victims must contend, the play offers little new or illuminating about the topic; it’s really about journalistic ethics, and might have been more powerful if that aspect, including its aftermath, were more explicitly dramatized and discussed. A treatment of the far-reaching implications of bad reporting on an issue of such sensitivity would be of potentially greater value than a dramatization of the circumstances surrounding an alleged but unverified rape. 

Stet isn’t a docudrama so much as a depiction of how difficult it is to determine the truth and of the undue trust we often place in the hands of those who write about it. But beyond that is the problem of what to do about a reporter who, realizing she's probably been fooled, goes ahead with her story regardless. And what is the impact on the entire issue of campus rape of such a sensationalized but doubtful accusation? You won't find the answers in Stet.
Dea Julien. Photo: Ben Strothmann.
In brief, Erika (Kuritsky), assigned by her editor, Phil (Bruce McKenzie), to write about the effects on a victim of a campus rape, chooses as her subject a girl named Ashley (Lexi Lapp) after Erika and Phil hear her claiming on a Take Back the Night video that she was gang raped during a fraternity party by seven frat brothers. Ashley, however, is reluctant to move forward, even refusing to name the perpetrators. Erika also speaks to Christina (Déa Julien), the college’s 23-year-old “project coordinator for sexual misconduct response and prevention,” herself claiming to be a rape victim, and Connor (Jack Fellows), the boisterously effusive frat VP who also happens to be co-founder of the school's One in Four chapter, the anti-sexual assault group.
Jocelyn Kuritsky, Lexi Lapp. Photo: Ben Strothmann.
These interviews offer insights into campus attitudes toward frat parties, drinking, and sex, and reveal Erika and Phil’s lack of interest in the kind of conventional and all-too-common stories (like Christine’s) about innocent girls getting drunk and being taken advantage of; they're after the bigger journalistic game of seven at one blow represented by Ashley’s experience. 
Lexi Lapp, Jocelyn Kuritsky. Photo: Ben Strothmann.
We also discover the insidious thoughts on college sex and drinking held by Phil, who appears to have no idea of how much of what he smugly thinks of as his own innocuous frat boy memories resemble what now are recognized as rapes. Ultimately, Ashley tries to backtrack but, as my theatre companion later put it in an e-mail, Erika, about to be interviewed on national TV, “is too far along to cancel . . . , and is invested in her own fame and fortune by this point, so she has to STET the false story.” Actually, the falsity of the story, while hinted at, is never firmly established, which still doesn't exonerate Erika from publishing her flimsily researched account.
Jocelyn Kuritsky. Photo: Ben Strothmann.
Speciale’s not-too-special production occurs entirely in a modern, boardroom-like setting, designed by Jo Winiarski and lit by Daisy Long, regardless of whether we’re at the magazine, in a college office, a college bar, etc. Katherine Freer has created an abundance of excellent video and still projections that help contextualize the events. The tone and pacing are, for the most part, quietly naturalistic; this, though, creates a draggy, talky, sleepy atmosphere until Jack Fellows makes his entrance. Suddenly, the stage lights up in the presence of stage magnetism—a hunky young actor in the Brendan Fraser mold with a powerful voice who knows how to make each of his frat boy lines bounce with collegiate attitude and irony. 
Jack Fellows, Jocelyn Kuritsky. Photo: Ben Strothmann.
Déas does a nice job with the sincere, young college official, especially when she shows her vulnerability about  having her own story overlooked; Lapp is suitably anxious about having Ashley’s story publicized; and McKenzie brings a laid-back quietness to Phil that looks and sounds real but lapses into dullness.

Kuritsky, seeking a role for herself as the reporter, brought the idea for the play to Speciale, the Abingdon’s artistic director, who, in turn, invited Davies to write it. The wiry, pencil-thin actress, her hair cut like a boy’s, brings intelligence and spirit to Erika but it's anybody's guess as to why costumer Hunter Kaczorowski dresses her to look like the androgynous lead singer of a rock band. A wink at Rolling Stone?.


Abingdon Theatre Company

312 W. 36th Street, NYC
Through July 3

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


"Depends on What You Mean by Funny"
Stars range from 5-1.

A funny thing may have happened on its way to the destination cited in the ponderous title of Halley Feiffer’s new play being given an MCC Theater production at the Lucille Lortel but it certainly doesn’t happen in the play itself. Feiffer, the talented writer of How to Make Friends and then Kill Them and I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, strains mightily to create an offbeat rom-com about a mismatched pair of losers who meet cute in a hospital room where their mothers are being treated for ovarian cancer; it’s a heavy lift.

Beth Behrs, Lisa Emery. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Feiffer’s black comedy, which tries to wring smiles out of the dire misfortune of a loved one’s suffering by laughing in the face of death, has noble intentions. The characters she creates to navigate the situation, however, are neither interesting nor amusing enough to warrant the kind of empathy needed to appreciate watching them work out their issues for the play’s 85 intermissionless minutes. As my plus-one and I waited for a light at Sheridan Square, another theatregoer, who overheard us talking about it, said: “Those were the longest 85 minutes I’ve ever spent.”
Beth Behrs, Lisa Emery, Jacqueline Sydney, Erik Lochtefeld. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Karla (Beth Behrs of 2 Broke Girls, making her Off-Broadway debut) is a young, standup comedian who works out loud on her new routine while visiting her mother, Marcie (Lisa Emery), a social worker. Also making daily visits to his mom, Geena (Jacqueline Sydney), is Don (Erik Lochtefeld), a man about twice Karla’s age, who made a fortune by selling his tech-start up (a wedding planner website). Karla’s lost a sister to drugs; Don’s wife left him for another woman and his son’s using drugs. Their mothers, Karla’s usually sleeping, Don’s seemingly comatose, share a room at Sloan Kettering, a curtain separating one bed from the other. Don’s mom has only a few words, but Karla’s has the same kind of love/hate attitude toward her daughter Feiffer (daughter of cartoonist/playwright Jules) dramatized between a father and his daughter in I’m Going to Pray for You So Hard.

As exaggeratedly costumed by Kaye Voyce, Karla dresses in an attempt at downtown comic coolness, wearing brightly colored ski caps and jeans with one leg rolled up to her knees. Don, for all his wealth, has been struggling with his mother’s illness for years, thus justifying his homeless person look, with dirty sneakers, holes at his elbows, and either cruddy sweatpants or chinos with a hanging butt. When Don can’t help but be annoyed by overhearing Karla’s filthy bit about being raped by her vibrator, he objects, the curtain gets moved aside, and one thing leads to another as anger turns to mutual interest, interest turns to attraction, attraction turns to sex (barely seen through the open bathroom door for those on the right of the house); the rest, none of it particularly surprising or original, can be left to your imagination.
Erik Lochtefeld, Beth Behrs. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Despite the very specific location of a hospital room (precisely designed by Lauren Helpern and lit by Matthew Richards) in an oncology unit whose name is part of the play’s title, and the presence of two women ill with cancer, the play spends little time on medical issues. Geena’s terminal but Marcie, who’s had a hysterectomy as a defense against Stage 1 endometrial cancer, has a shot at survival. Meanwhile, the actresses must simulate sleep or sedated semi-consciousness for much of the time they’re on stage, not an easy task when you have cues coming up. Despite having barely any words, Sydney brings her character to life by sustaining an expression of pain throughout; it’s never quite clear just how much she hears of what’s going on. And Emery, during her waking moments, makes a cutting impression as a sarcastic woman who can say to a total stranger offering to help her with her nasal tube, “What’re you gonna do, enlarge my nostrils with your dick?”

Under Trip Cullman’s overstated direction, both Behrs, a slender blond, and Lochtefeld, tall, lanky, bearded, and bespectacled, overplay from the get-go, pushing their annoying eccentricities for maximum effect and thereby abandoning their believability and charm. Each has occasional moments of honesty and sincerity but these are too infrequent to overcome the general air of artificiality and lack of humor they provide.

A Funny Thing . . . does now and then stimulate laughter; it just depends on what you think is funny.


Lucille Lortel Theatre
Christopher Street, NYC
Through July 3

Thursday, June 16, 2016

28. Review: HELLO, DILLIE! (seen June 15, 2016)

"It's So Nice to Have You Back"
Stars range from 5-1.

For my review of Hello, Dillie! please click on Theater Pizzazz.


59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th Street, NYC
Through July 3

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

27. Review: THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (seen June 12, 2016)

“Funny, She Doesn’t Act Shrewish”
Stars range from 5-1.
Whenever I see a production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew I can’t help but remember the time I played Petruchio in the wooing scene (“Good morrow, Kate, for that’s your name, I hear”) on the vast stage of Loew’s Pitkin Theatre in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The time was June 1955 and the occasion the commencement exercises for Somers JHS 252. My teenage Katherina was Myra Schneider, a red-hot blonde; there was no way for me to tame this shrewish little spitfire, either off or on the stage (I never saw her again after we graduated), but watching various Petruchios through the years I learned a lot about how I might have been much better in our scene. 
Janet McTeer. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Of course, I never expected for one of my mentors to be a woman. That’s what happened, though, when I saw British star Janet McTeer, tall, lanky, and loaded with bad-boy bluster (and an American accent), play the part in the otherwise bumpy, all-female revival of Shrew directed by Britain’s Phyllida Lloyd that begins this year’s season of Shakespeare in the Park.
Donna Lynn Champlin, Cush Jumbo, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Cush Jumbo. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Like The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew has run smack dab into modern attitudes that make productions of it problematic and require directors to find creative ways to avoid offending audiences. Various productions have managed to avoid the anti-Semitic overtones of Merchant but it’s not quite so easy to abandon Shrew’s insistence that women should be kept in their place and that men rule the roost.
Janet McTeer, Cush Jumbo. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Shrew is a play in which Petruchio, a testosterone-fueled chauvinist from Verona, comes to Padua to “wive it wealthily,” i.e., to marry someone for money, and succeeds through rather forcible means in taming and making malleable the defiantly shrewish Katherina (Cush Jumbo). She (a.k.a. Kate) is the daughter of the wealthy Baptista (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), and sister of the complacent Bianca (Gayle Rankin), played here as a ditzy Southern belle in a Dolly Parton wig. Petruchio will stop at nothing to tame the termagant, even to the point of sleep deprivation and starvation, and the play concludes with Kate conceding victory in no uncertain terms, including these closing words:

Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband’s foot:
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease.

My 24-year-old granddaughter, who’d never seen the play before, said it gave her the chills to hear this submissive speech, but, like it or not, that’s what Shakespeare wrote. Modern actors and directors have tried numerous ways to undercut it with ironic looks and business; when it works, it reveals Kate’s subtle intelligence and how well-matched she and Petruchio actually are. The solution offered by Lloyd and Cush is for Kate to speak the words forthrightly and then to add newly written ones that spit out her dismissal of them. This does nothing but subvert and literally rewrite the play.
Rosa Gilmore, Gayle Rankin. Photo: Joan Marcus.
This is only one instance of such reductionism. Instead of the Christopher Sly induction scene framing the play (which has been ruthlessly cut to an intermissionless two hours), Lloyd begins and ends it with a beauty pageant (“Miss Lombardy 2016”) commented on over the PA system with Trump-like voice and platitudes, while, later in the play, Gremio (Judy Gold) does a bit that alludes to Hillary Clinton and expresses Gremio’s distaste for being directed by a woman. Among other such piled-on shtick is a passage that quotes from Gone with the Wind, with Bianca as Scarlett O’Hara in a Civil War hoopskirt. Is this Shakespeare-right, Shakespeare-lite, or Shakespeare-flight?
LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Janet McTeer. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As expected, there’s a lot of farcical folderol, with lots of characters in disguise, and plenty of physical action (such as Kate racing about on a bike) and an eclectic musical background (sound design by Mark Menard), including Presley, Benatar, and a full-company finale dance to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation”; sorry, but very little is more than passingly funny. Some of the biggest laughs the night I attended came when a gaze of raccoons kept moving across a gap in the scenery.
Cush Jumbo, Janet McTeer. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Having only women play roles in a work focusing on male-female behavior helps underline issues of gender construction but it goes only so far; the point once made, you still have to get through the rest of the play watching largely height-challenged actors with their breasts taped down trying to convince you of their masculinity. Yes, Shakespeare’s actors were all male, but the female roles were played by young specialists and there were only a handful of them on stage in any case. The all-female approach worked much better in Lloyd’s Julius Caesar at St. Ann’s Warehouse, where it made sense in the prison environment created for the production.
For some vague reason, Shrew is set in a circus environment, as if the world were itself a circus (albeit one without any circus acts). Mark Thompson has created a tent-pole setting on a large ring-like platform, with sizable caravans at either side; there’s also a substantial RV for Petruchio, moved on a turntable, with cheesecake pictures on it and a PISA-ASS license plate. His costumes are a miscellaneous mix of 20th-century garb, with suits, derbies, and fedoras for most of the men; a scuzzy country singer’s dark jeans, jacket, and cowboy hat for Petruchio, and an abbreviated, pink and white, gingham dress for Kate. Very little ties these costumes together.

The company is certainly a talented one but, apart from McTeer’s show-stealing, super-macho, bully-boy, but oddly charmless Petruchio (who pees against a pole at one point), few others make much of an impression. Jumbo has done much better work (her solo turn as Josephine Baker in Josephine and I was superb) but here she’s been directed to act devilish by screaming, shouting, and jumping about, making her more a petulant child than a serious challenge for Petruchio to overcome. 

Funny, you might say, but she doesn’t act shrewish at all. Myra Schneider, on the other hand, was both shrewish and . . . 


Delacorte Theatre
Central Park at W. 81st Street, NYC
Through June 26

Monday, June 13, 2016

26. Review: I'LL SAY SHE IS (seen June 11, 2016)

 “Shtick Marx the Plot”
Stars range from 5-1.

Note: An earlier version of this review misquoted a line from the dialogue: "I shall not fire until I see the whites of their eggs. That's a good yolk." The part about the "yolk" is not in the show but is cited in Gerald Bordman's American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle.
In case you haven’t noticed, the New York theatre is currently enjoying a mini-festival of Roaring 20s musicals. The big one, of course, is the greatly revised, star-studded Broadway production egregiously retitled Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed; however, if you don’t mind trekking to the Connelly Theatre in the Lower East Side's Alphabet City, you can find an attempt—clumsy as it is—at a much more faithful revival (albeit of community theatre quality) of a lesser-known, old-time, “musical comedy revue.” It's called I’ll Say She Is, and originally opened at the Casino Theatre in 1924 (after a nearly year-long pre-Broadway tour), running for 313 performances.
Foreground, starting second from L: Melody Jane, Matt Walters, Noah Diamond, Seth Shelden, Matt Roper. Photo: Stefan Timphus.
Mostly (and justifiably) forgotten, except by musical theatre historians, the innocuous show owes its place in theatre history to the fact that it turned a sibling team of vaudevillians called the Marx Brothers—Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo—into Broadway stars. The first three, of course, soon became stage and film legends; Zeppo and another brother, Gummo, became major Hollywood agents. Thus the show’s new subtitle, “The Lost Marx Brothers Musical.”
Melody Jane, Noah Diamond. Photo: Stefan Timphus.
Noah Diamond, who plays Groucho and authored a book called Gimme a Thrill: The Story of I’ll Say She Is, The Lost Marx Brothers Musical and How It Was Found, has resuscitated the script, based on the 30-page, scenario-like, 1923 rehearsal typescript (book and lyrics by Will B. Johnstone; music by Tom Johnstone, with additional music by Alexander Johnstone); it was first seen locally at the 2014 New York International Fringe Festival. Having lovingly pieced together his text from the fragments he collected during his research, Diamond claims responsibility for about half the lyrics and a third of the book. The night I attended, though, the Connelly Theatre didn’t resound with “the boisterous laughter” critic Percy Hammond reported on at the Casino in 1924, where he added that “Such shouts of merriment have not been heard . . . these many years.” Of course, given the madcap brothers’ fondness for improvisation, they probably added new gags at every performance regardless of how set the script was. 

As Diamond himself points out, I’ll Say She Is has a flimsy plotline that’s little more than an excuse to tie the songs, dances, and comedy together; though he’s filled out the plot a bit, it remains largely invisible amid a confetti shower of shtick. If you’ve seen the great Marx Brothers movies, like Animal Crackers, The Cocoanuts, and A Night at the Opera, you’ll have a pretty good idea of all that Marxist madness and punny funniness.

There’s the silent, deadpan Harpo (the versatile Seth Shelden, outstanding) with his curly red wig, battered top hat, honking horn, baggy jacket filled with loot (the bit with the cascading silverware is a highlight), raising his leg so someone can hold it by the thigh, chasing after girls, and displaying musical skill on the harp and other instruments. (No wonder. Shelden's dad is the superb clarinetist, Paul Shelden.) Then there are Chico (Matt Roper), with his Sicilian accent, pointy hat and short jacket, card playing antics, and piano virtuosity, and Groucho, with his plastered-on black eyebrows and mustache, loose black suit, ever-present cigar, and nonstop wisecracks. These zanys carry out all the crazy business while their better-looking brother, Zeppo (Matt Walters), covers the singing male romantic lead.
Melody Jane. Photo: Stefan Timphus.
The plot? Well, let’s just say it features the brothers trying out for a talent agency, followed by  their encounter with a stuffy, or better, well-stuffed, society matron named Ruby (Kathy Biehl struggling to channel Margaret Dumont) and her bored young niece, Beauty (Melody Jane, adorable, the show's most polished singer). Beauty, suffering from “suppressed desires,” sings that she wants someone to “gimme a thrill.” When hypnotized she imagines she’s Josephine and her dream scene produces a period-costume extravaganza with Groucho as her quip-a-minute Napoleon and his brothers as her hidden lovers, Alphonse, Gaston, and Francois. A typical line: "I shall not fire until I see the whites of their eggs." Or: "You must be wrapped in cellophane, because you're awfully fresh."

One of her various thrill-seeking adventures takes her to a Chinatown opium den that includes a so-called apache dance; Beauty’s arrested here for a mass murder and then tried, with Harpo as the judge and Groucho and Chico as lawyers. Somewhere in all the mayhem Groucho becomes a pipe-smoking, winged fairy and offers a crack about not being able to use the bathrooms in North Carolina, one of a sprinkling of jokes nodding to current events (more would have helped). There are lots of second-rate songs and dances (accompanied only by pianist Sabrina Chap and percussionist Matt Talmadge); I feared for the old stage’s stability when the 10 chorus girls attacked it with their tap shoes. Three of the chorines also show off their considerable skill at blowing brass instruments. Where was I? Oh, yes, Zeppo (not Zippo) is the thrill that finally lights Beauty’s fire.

It’s easy to see how sensational the early Marx Brothers must have appeared with their anarchic, anything-goes humor, never allowing a serious moment to intrude without a horn honk, a rapid riposte, or a lecherous leer. Now, nearly 100 years after they reached the Great White Way, their idiosyncrasies have become iconic. Shelden, Roper, and Diamond are all fine replicas of the originals, but they’re replicas doing bits that--except for diehard fans--are growing moldy. If you’re a rabid Marxist, you’ll appreciate the nostalgia they inspire and will admire their impressionist skills; if you’re not, seeing them cavort in a nonsensical storyline peppered with not a single memorable song or dance over two and a half hours is an endurance test I recommend only if TCM can’t satisfy your Marxian cravings.

Partly, this is because the production, ploddingly directed by Amanda Sisk and conventionally choreographed by Shea Sullivan, is so cheesy you may want to spread your favorite jam over it. Could the presence of a program credit for “scene construction” (Joe Diamond) and the absence of one for scene design be because the set is so amateurish and ugly that no one wanted to be associated with it? And why, in a show with over 20 cast members, are the many scene shifts handled not by having them choreographed into the action but by slowing everything down as two women, carelessly dressed in basic stagehand black, do the job? Despite an obviously low budget, some effort, thankfully, has gone into Julz Kroboth’s period costumes, especially for the sizable, hardworking chorus line.

Still wondering if I’ll Say She Is might be a lost jazz age gem? I’ll say it’s not.


Connelly Theatre

220 E. 4th Street, NYC
Through July 2