Clowning Around: Musings on Old Hats – February 6, 2016

Comedy is subjective.

What is funny to some might be offensive to others; one needs to take into account cultural, ethnic and religious context in which the humor may be taken. On the other hand, there are some things that are universally and eternally amusing for all, regardless of age, race, and political sensibilities. Old Hats, currently playing on the Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center falls in the latter category. I obtained tickets via the TDF ticket raffle table at the BC/EFA Flea Market & Auction (the final pair from last year’s batch), anticipating a enjoyable afternoon of hilarity.

I was not disappointed.

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Old Hats harkens back to the days of vaudeville, with master clowns Bill Irwin and David Shiner performing a series of skits, many of which were performed in mime, with a the off stage band providing the necessary (percussive) sound effects to accentuate the action. Between skits were songs written and sung by Shaina Taub – oftentimes she interacted with the pair, as both a comic foil and as a catalyst. The stage was designed to resemble a traditional vaudeville stage, with a gold fringed red curtain and show card displaying the skit title, situated on the right. In conjunction with the traditional props is the inclusion of technology – the use of visual projections with which Irwin and Shiner use to brilliant effect. Audience interaction and participation is another component of the show, with the actors interacting with (those fortunate enough to be) sitting in the front row, and bringing audience members onstage for a bit of improvisation.

The stage door experience was relaxed – as the show was playing at one of the many stages within the Signature Center, there was one area from where all the actors exit, which spills into the café / lobby area on the second floor of the building. A small throng gathered haphazardly around this area, with playbills and other items to be signed; the cast were affable, chatting with those waiting, signing playbills and posing for photos.

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Needless to say I highly recommend seeing the show – it appeals to all ages and is a welcome tonic to the political correctness of most comedy shows and refrains (for the most part) from including any overt innuendo that might come across as offensive. Old Hats is playing from now until April 3, 2016. For more information, visit: http://www.signaturetheatre.org/tickets/production.aspx?pid=4307

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Hilarity and Suspense: Musings on The 39 Steps – October 3, 2015

Mention the name Alfred Hitchcock and the first thought that comes to mind (usually) is his signature silhouette profile; the second thought is of horror in relation to how his films often feature scary and suspenseful moments/themes (Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, etc.).  Based on the film of the same name, The 39 Steps strives to “break” this stereotype by infusing moments of hilarity amid the action and suspense. I obtained tickets via the usual way I obtain my autumn tickets – through the TDF ticket raffle table at this year’s Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Flea Market & Grand Auction – and was looking forward to seeing this revival production. Currently playing off-Broadway at the Union Square Theater, I saw this play years ago when it played on Broadway and thoroughly enjoyed the overall concept and execution of this adaptation to the stage.

The 39 Steps Marquee

Set in 1935, the plot revolves around Richard Hannay, a seemingly bored and directionless English gentleman bemoaning the lack of excitement in his life; a trip to the theatre sets into motion a sequence of events that draws him into a world of intrigue. The production scale is quite minimalist, to the point that there are only four members in the cast (three men and one woman), two of whom play a host of minor characters of both genders and of varying ages throughout. The set design is sparse yet effective – the actors’ actions (and reactions) enhance the scenes, along with the use of proper sound effects and other clever visual effects. There is also a quasi-meta quality to the production, with a multitude of references to other Hitchcock films and moments of almost-breaking-the fourth-wall.

The 39 Steps cast list

The four member cast was astounding, especially Billy Carter and Cameron Pow, the aforementioned two actors (listed respectively as “Clown #1 and Clown #2 in the playbill) who play over a multitude of minor characters, all with their own unique personality quirks with expert timing. Brittany Vicars was en pointe as all the female characters, giving each their own unique (often comic) spin. Robert Petkoff, whom I’ve seen several times on Broadway in Spamalot and Ragtime, was fantastic as Richard Hannay, exuding the perfect balance of obliviousness and astuteness as the events around Hannay complicate themselves.

The stage door experience was fine, as they always have been, though I was really the only one waiting outside the lobby (there isn’t a formal stage door area at the Union Square Theater – I was told by the lady working the merchandise area that the actors enter and exit the same way the audience does). Nevertheless, I did meet Cameron Pow and with Robert Petkoff, and briefly chatted with them, as I attended the matinee and they were running out to grab a bite to eat before their second show.

Me and Robert Petkoff

Me and Robert Petkoff

Me and Cameron Pow

Me and Cameron Pow

In conclusion, I highly recommend seeing The 39 Steps, which is an open run down at the Union Square Theater, It’s hilarious, it’s dramatic and it’s suspenseful, and it might (slightly) alter your view of Hitchcock films – there’s even a complimentary “nosie” to emphasize the comedic aspect of the play.

The 39 Steps playbill

Quasi-obligatory "nosie" in the theater lobby

Quasi-obligatory “nosie” in the theater lobby

Misinformation and Mistaken Identity: Musings on Under the Knife – March 29, 2015

Clear communication is the key to any relationship, personal or professional, and when that basic tenet breaks down, things can snowball into a great maelstrom before the situation is resolved, hopefully for the better. This breakdown in communication is at the core of any great farce, coupled with mistaken identities, a multitude of slamming doors and the inevitable chase sequence. Such is the case in Under the Knife, the latest play by Peter Zachari, playing at the Theater for the New City located in the East Village, for a limited run from now through April 5th.

Under the Knife poster

[Brief Disclaimer: Once again, I must disclose that Peter is a very good friend of mine, whose shows I have seen (and blogged about), and of which I am a (minor) investor. I am also good friends with cast member Joey Mirabile both of whom I had met roughly four years ago when Peter’s first show Parker & Dizzy’s Fabulous Journey To the End of the Rainbow had its world premiere at the New York International Fringe Festival. So it’s quite obvious that I’ve become quite a fan (groupie?) of Peter and his works – as stated before, the opinions and musings stated in this blog are my own, with no influence from the playwright. This is not a formal review or critique – I’m not a critic, I’m just an average theatergoer.]

Under the Knife cast

The play is set in the waiting room of the Mount Canyon Gynecological Medical Building, where finance-strapped Doctor Roe Wade rents out two office spaces – one to a pair of plastic surgeons and the other to a dentist. Unbeknownst to him, he has personal connection with both tenants – one of the plastic surgeons is his ex-wife Marsha, and the dentist is his mistress Deirdre (who curiously bears a striking resemblance to Marsha), and Roe desperately does his best (with the help of his receptionist Cora) to keep the two women from discovering one another. Meanwhile, Roe and Marsha’s son Budd is engaged to marry Bernadette, and arrives to ask his father to help pay for the wedding; however, Bernadette is a staunch pro-life activist (unaware of Roe’s occupation), and Budd does his best to keep this fact from his fiancée. Hilarity ensues when Deidre is mistaken for Marsha (and vice versa) and Bernadette believes Roy (the other plastic surgeon, who is also a recovering sex addict engaged to Marsha) is Roe; amid this inevitable tempest in a teapot is the arrival of Eyphah, an absentminded Holocaust survivor whose sheer presence adds the chaos that ensues.

As in any great farce, there are double entendres, sexual innuendo, cross-dressing, quick exits and entrances through several doors – there are five in total – yet amid the absurdity and seemingly implausible scenarios, there is some basis of reality upon which the events unfold. Roe’s financial instability (accentuated by a brief appearance by an IRS auditor, somewhat appropriate as Tax Day in America looms over the horizon), and the partly mentioned issue of abortion (there’s a running gag wherein the “A” word never fully spoken aloud) are the catalyst that fuels the action. Another key element in farce is timing, which needs to be precise and run like clockwork – Under the Knife has this in spades, with the audience following (with relative ease) the intricate web of misdirection and complications that arise. There is an abundance of pop culture references, (including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Star Wars reference) along with the aforementioned double entendres, sexual innuendo (Oprah and O Magazine are utilized brilliantly), and a bit of a cappella singing. There’s also a (probably inadvertent) reference to La Cage aux Folles, in the Budd/Bernadette romance subplot, with Budd (like Jean-Michel) apprehensive of his morally conservative fiancée learning the truth about his father. Perhaps I’m reading more into this than the average theatergoer, or perhaps it’s because of how I initially met Peter and Joey that I picked up this vibe.

The cast is amazing, playing their roles with just the right amount of madcap fervor without it going over the top (well at least not too much) – several cast members appeared in Peter’s previous works and their camaraderie is evident. The most notable performance came from Lori Funk, as both Marsha and Deidre – as the play unfolded, switched between the two roles (each with their unique vocal and physical tics) seamlessly. The clever use of a blackout allowed both characters to inhabit the stage at the same time, and with only the ability of listening to the two characters share the scene, you would have thought there were two different actors on stage, instead of one.

I highly recommend seeing this play – there are only a few performances left – it’s a frantic yet well paced farce with the right balance of melodrama and sincerity amid the usual organized chaos. Adding to the atmosphere is the piped in music from the 1930’s (a common time setting for a farce) – jazz standards and popular hits from that era, giving the play (which is clearly set in contemporary times) a kind of screwball comedy vibe.   For more information, visit http://www.theaterforthenewcity.net/undertheknife.html

Under the Knife playbill