Friday, March 24, 2017

160. Review: ANGRY YOUNG MAN (seen March 23, 2017)

"Scrambled Farce"

How long does it take for a farce to lay an egg? Well, in the case of Angry Young Man, the farcical fowl now nesting at Urban Stages, it’s a mercifully short hour and 15 minutes. Not, however, that everyone seeing this British import by Ben Woolf will have their feathers equally ruffled. Written ten years ago, it was a popular offering at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and even won a prize at Australia’s Adelaide Festival. It deals, after all, with the hot-button issue of immigration, is conceptually imaginative and cleverly staged, and enjoys the services of four personable young actors. 
Front: Christopher Daftsios, Rami Margron; rear: Max Samuel, Nazli Sarpkaya. Photo: David Rodgers. 
None of these things, though, is a strong enough medicine to cure the greatest ailment afflicting any farce: it’s not very funny. Seriously. Or, given the hilarity its original production appears to have inspired, maybe it's this particular production that isn't very funny. Or maybe I'm just too hard a nut to crack. 

Of course, humor is an individual matter, and there was indeed laughter during the performance I attended. But, by and large, it seemed--except for a few high spots where even my stoneface yielded-- more of the respectful tittering variety than the kind of continuously robust guffaws one expects from broad, slapstick comedy. Perhaps it's a cultural thing about the ability of this kind of British humor making it successfully across the pond, although it seems to work in other contexts. Whatever it is, when actors push as urgently for yocks as they do here I feel an attack of comic salmonella coming on.
Front: Christopher Daftsios, Max Samuel, Rami Margron; rear: Nazli Sarpkaya. Photo: Ben Rodgers.
Angry Young Man is the story of Yusuf, a Middle Eastern (native country undisclosed) surgeon with barely any English (apart from when he narrates the action) who comes to London to interview for a hospital job. After a botched surgery in his homeland, he's no longer welcome there. He quickly finds himself the victim of everything bad that could happen to an uninformed newcomer. Perhaps you remember those hapless tourists played by Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis in The Out-of-Towners (1970; remade in 1999 with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn).

While ostensibly hoping to mock the racist obstacles even a doctor like Yusuf (especially one so naïvely stupid and self-involved) might encounter in supposedly liberal England, the play’s speeding bullet of a plot simply piles one impossible mishap and misadventure on the other: Yusuf gets ripped off by his airport taxi driver, is befriended by a radical in a red-starred Mao cap, kills a skinhead in a sleazy bar, flirts with his buddy’s girlfriend, gets involved with a shady immigrant teen who's on the verge of being deported, is threatened by skinhead thugs, and so on, all of it silly, exaggerated, juvenile, and frantically searching for your funny bone.
Christopher Daftsios, Nazli Sarpkaya, Rami Margron, Max Samuel. Photo: Ben Rodgers.
No bones about it, Angry Young Man wants to make you laugh at its savaging of the anti-immigrant citizenry. Its theatrical premise has each of its actors (two men and two women replacing what was an all-male London cast) dressed by costumer Yuka Silvera in exactly the same way: a slightly oversized, double-breasted suit, shirt and tie, and tan, leather shoes. Each plays the heavily-accented Yusuf, sometimes solely, sometimes in unison with one or more others, while also portraying all the other characters, making adjustments to clarify their identity at any moment. This tag-team concept completely overshadows any message the play may have.

Swishy, feminine movements, perhaps with one’s top shirt buttons opened, represent a woman, while a hat or kerchief might be enough for someone else. Over-the-top mugging is pervasive, as is a plethora of funny faces. There are pratfalls, fake violence (Dan Renkin is the fight director), and other clownish maneuvers, while an actor with a mic provides—in addition to offstage ones provided by sound designer David M. Lawson—a panoply of vocal and other sound effects.

A tall A-ladder serves multiple purposes, as do a variety of hand props, like the double-headed vise that an actor, climbing the ladder, holds against his brow to suggest he’s a mounted deer head. A flashlight can serve as a flashlight but also be used for sophomoric humor when serving as a statue’s sexual organ.
Front: Nazli Sarpkaya, Rami Margron, Christopher Daftsios; rear: Max Samuel. Photo: Ben Rodgers.
The set itself (credited to Frank J. Oliva) is a bare space, with a few random props strewn about, and with heavy curtains on the rear wall that eventually get torn down, as if accidentally, to garner a chuckle at what’s disclosed. The efficient lighting is by Sebastian Paczynski.  

Director Stephen Hamilton knows how to move people around in ingenious ways; every fast-paced moment is carefully choreographed and some bits are creatively priceless. One in particular, when Yusuf sees himself in multiple mirrors, is a brilliant standout.
Front: Christopher Daftsios, Max Samuel, Rami Margron; rear: Nazli Sarpkaya. Photo: Ben Rodgers.
The acting quartet is composed of actors from diverse backgrounds using a variety of British and other accents; Christopher Daftsios is a first-generation Greek; actress Rami Margron is of Haitian descent; Max Samuel is Jewish; and Nazli Sarpkaya is a Turkish immigrant. Not that this is particularly unusual. Aside, perhaps, from Sarpkaya, I’m sure the same diversity exists in most New York shows, which speaks to our nation’s cultural openness, now threatened by our national leaders.

Angry Young Man’s cast is lively, versatile, and technically proficient, and each has something interestingly distinctive to offer. Apart, though, for the rubber-faced Daftsios, they’re not natural clowns, at least not in the terms demanded by this very difficult genre; the material forces them to strain too hard, which only makes it more uncomfortable to watch their stuff fall flat. 

Should you get a ticket for Angry Young Man? Depends on your taste in eggs.


Urban Stages
259 W. 30th St., NYC
Through April 9