Clever Little Lies (Westside Theatre – NYC)

I remember hearing Jack Lemmon discuss his part in the classic Billy Wilder film Some Like It Hot, divulging that a core ingredient of the best comedies is an element of deceit, some facade just waiting to unravel. The time between when the lie begins and it falls apart is fertile ground for all kinds of funny things to happen, the suspense of waiting for the moment when “the jig is up” adding to the effect. Joe DiPietro’s Clever Little Lies, in its final week at the Westside Theatre after opening last fall, takes infidelity, one of the most tried and true wells for comedy (see the sitcom “Friends” and Ross and Rachel’s “we were on a break!” argument that was a running gag for years), and pairs it with former “That Girl” Marlo Thomas and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” lead Greg Mullavey to mine the rather sordid subject for laughs and uncomfortable situations.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy

Clever Little Lies begins after a game of tennis between father and son in a locker room where Billy confides to his father Bill about an affair that he is having with a personal trainer. Billy, who is married to Jane and has an infant child, swears his father to secrecy, but it doesn’t take long for Alice, Bill’s wife, to sense that something is wrong. Alice takes it upon herself to invite her son and daughter-in-law over to confront the issue, and what ensues is a night of revelations that leave everyone surprised. It turns out that the “lies” of the title are neither “little” nor “clever” after all.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Marlo Thomas plays Alice with a light touch, enjoyably sneaky as she butts in on problems within her son’s marriage but sly enough to get away with most anything. Ms. Thomas knows how to play this material to land every laugh, and the play comes alive only upon her entrance in the second scene when she grills her husband to extract information about her son, knowing full well that he promised not to say anything. She bypasses this by throwing out all kinds of guesses, quickly followed by, “Don’t say anything if I’m right!” Ms. Thomas turns a character who could be quite a harpy and unlikable into the kind of quick-witted matriarch anyone would be fortunate to have on their team, insidious as she may be.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Greg Mullavey plays her husband Bill, powerless to resist falling under his wife’s control but instilled with a loyalty and understanding that only comes with time. Mr. Mullavey is just as skilled as Ms. Thomas in eliciting laughter from the audience, some of the biggest using his deadpan expression when faced with surprising facts about his wife and son’s secrets. I really bought Mr. Mullavey and Ms. Thomas as a married couple, and it is their chemistry and delivery that makes the piece work.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
I’m not quite sure what to make of George Merrick as the couple’s son, Billy, or Kate Wetherhead as his wife, Jane. Mr. Merrick is quite attractive, but he acts mostly with a scowl and furrowed brow; his intensity works against the comedic qualities of the writing, and his timing is often off in a way that kills lines that would be funny if played differently. Take for example his first scene in the locker room when he confesses his affair to his father; Mr. Merrick rushes into a forced stage cry where he covers his face, his timing so abrupt that at first it appears that he is laughing. It’s hard for me to believe that two people as enjoyable to be around as Ms. Thomas and Mr. Mullavey could have such a jerk as a son, and that’s exactly how Mr. Merrick comes off. Ms. Wetherhead as his wife seems to think going nasal is a part of playing comedy, her voice often pitched higher than expected, though she at least has more to work with once her husband’s indiscretions are revealed; still, I found her only mildly more bearable than her on stage spouse, a most unlikeable couple that deserves each other. It’s almost as if Mr. Merrick and Ms. Wetherhead, who have not a thimbleful of chemistry, are from another play or are performing in some acting exercise in which they were carelessly paired up together.

Director David Saint keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, seemingly knowing that it’s his showbiz veterans that will carry the piece, though it’s hard to understand how some glaring flaws in the production appear to have passed by him unchanged. The scene in the car between Mr. Merrick and Ms. Wetherhead is startlingly stale, and the vehicle is positioned at an angle on the stage that doesn’t line up with the rear projection footage. Why bother with having the car and the background footage if it is going to be handled so poorly? At least the set of Alice and Bill’s living room designed by Yoshi Tanokura looks inviting, tastefully upscale with a lived in appearance. The majority of the action takes place on this lovely set, which makes the scene in the car and opening scene at the tennis club locker room feel like cheap afterthoughts in comparison.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Still, Clever Little Lies is a cute, compact show with several laugh out loud moments. Though I think it resolves itself a bit too easily at the end and half the cast was not to my liking, it has the feel of a jumbo-sized sitcom, appropriate as it is a great vehicle for its two veteran stars of popular television comedies from the ’60s and ’70s. At just under an hour and a half in length, Clever Little Lies doesn’t outstay its welcome, though it is the crackling chemistry and timing of its stars from yesteryear you’ll remember when it’s all over.

**/ out of ****

Clever Little Lies continues through to January 24th upstairs in the Westside Theatre at 407 W. 43rd St. (at 9th Ave.) in Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://www.cleverlittlelies.com/

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Bat Boy: The Musical (Emerald City Players – Worthington, OH)

Where are all the plays inspired by outlandish stories in tabloids? I just know of one, and that’s Bat Boy: The Musical, which was inspired by a 1992 cover story in the “Weekly World News” about a boy who appeared to be part bat living in West Virginia (having lived in West Virginia before, this isn’t so shocking a claim). The cover of the tabloid became quite popular as an example of the ridiculousness of that and other tabloids, and no doubt you may have seen it before even if you haven’t read the article.

  

Taking inspiration from that photo and article, Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming wrote the book to Bat Boy: The Musical, with music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe. The play was first performed in 1997, eventually premiering off-Broadway in 2001 and garnering a cast recording before closing after nearly nine months. I remember it being popular off-Broadway at the same time as Urinetown: The Musical and there being debate on which might move to Broadway (only Urinetown: The Musical did). I first saw the play in a 2002 D.C. production that was partially environmental and quite serious in tone, so what a joy it was to see Emerald City Players present Bat Boy: The Musical in the tongue-in-cheek way as it was intended.

Bat Boy: The Musical takes place in Hope Falls, West Virginia, where cattle are dying at an alarming rate and a mysterious wild boy resembling a bat has been discovered. Could he be the cause of the cattle deaths? He is taken to the home of Dr. Parker, the local vet, with the thought that he will be disposed of; instead he is adopted by the family, learns English, and gets his GED! Still, the community doesn’t trust him, and it is only a manner of time before his true background is revealed.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Nick Beecroft
 
Nick Beecroft plays “Bat Boy” Edgar (Ms. Parker names him that) with wild abandon, completely unafraid of looking foolish. Sure, his bald cap is makeshift and shoddy, but that’s in keeping with the tone of this piece; if it was done too well it wouldn’t have fit in at all. It’s theatre of the absurd, so when Beecroft goes from moaning to communicate to speaking English with a British accent in a matter of days, the line of demarcation from where his forehead ends and the bald cap begins is the least of one’s concerns. He first appears nearly nude with confidence and is a total team player, jumping around and slobbering with his fake chompers.
 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Denae Sullivan and Nick Beecroft

Denae Sullivan as Meredith Parker is another standout as the matriarch of the Parker family. Her singing voice is pure and clear, which is good because she has the most challenging notes to hit in the score. There was a moment in last night’s performance where she slipped on some stage blood and fell so gracefully that I wasn’t sure it wasn’t planned. She held her note and stayed in character during it all, though she appeared in the second act with some bandages around her ankle. She persevered in the spirit of “the show must go on” and disguised her limp while in character extremely well. Only at the curtain call did it appear that she was in some distress, but her performance didn’t suffer at all – in fact, it seemed to get better, as if she now had something more to fight against along with her husband and the townsfolk in the play! Is she getting stunt pay? I hope she recovers quickly and they make sure to clean up the blood to help prevent mishaps in the future.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Nick Beecroft and Alexa Rybinski
 
Alexa Rybinski is Shelley Parker, playing her with sarcasm and sass to spare. She has similar coloring as Sullivan playing her mom, and their scenes together are some of the best in the play as they really know how to balance and play off of that tenuous mother-daughter dynamic.

Jim Bownas as Sheriff Reynolds is interesting as he comes off as the least experienced in the cast without a real “stage voice,” but boy does he fit the part! He has a swagger and a speech pattern that reminds of the good old boys in West Virginia, and the way he speaks rather than sings his lyrics (a la Rex Harrison) works as well. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Jill Jess, Meghan Russell, Jim Bownas, Jonathan March, Sophia Osman, and Alex Lanier
 
Jonathan March plays a variety of roles, most notably as Rick, Shelly’s gruff and flanneled boyfriend. Personally, I got the biggest kick out of seeing him in a dress and wig as Lorraine, the town busybody. Like Beecroft, March isn’t afraid at all to “go for it” and contort his strong features into many different characters for comedic effect.

Alex Lanier also plays several roles, and what a joy to finally get to hear her voice! I saw her in SRO’s The Fantasticks as the mute (!), so to hear her stirring voice and witness her spot on comedic delivery is a revelation.

Director Jody Hepp has done a marvelous job keeping the tone of the piece in check. Many of the songs veer into melodrama, but Hepp always finds some way to remind the audience, “This is a comedy.” Sudden moments of cartoon violence are surprising as well as hilarious, and they are mostly very well handled with practical effects. Performed in a makeshift performance space at the MOSSL (Mid-Ohio Select Soccer League) offices, the overall spirit is one of “let’s put on a show” reminiscent of the old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland films where they would put on performances in a barn. That’s not meant to imply that it is shoddy at all; the sound is clear, the lighting good, and the small band doesn’t miss a beat.

There is a lovely intimacy in this space as well, with less than fifty comfortable seats spaced evenly in front of the stage. Entertainment and art can come about in sometimes the oddest of locations, but I’m an advocate for it no matter where it can be staged! Some of my best theatregoing experiences have been in funky little off-Broadway spaces in downtown Manhattan, so I’m all for the different and unique if at the end of the day I have a good time. If you liked Little Shop of Horrors, then you should give Bat Boy: The Musical a try.

*** out of ****

Bat Boy: The Musical continues through to August 14th in the Mid-Ohio Select Soccer League offices at 670 Lakeview Plaza Suite D in Worthington, OH (around 25 minutes north of Columbus), and more information can be found at http://emeraldcityplayers.com/

The Fantasticks (Standing Room Only – Columbus, OH)

It’s a little embarrassing to admit that Standing Room Only’s The Fantasticks is the first time I’ve seen the show. Every musical theatre fan worth their salt has seen many different productions, right? I’ve had the 1960 original off-Broadway cast album for a long time, and many of the songs I know well because of cover versions performed by Barbra Streisand and Robert Goulet, and I did see the terribly misguided and unfortunate film version. Perhaps it’s fitting that my first time seeing this classic is in this quite adorable, well-sung production playing at the Shedd Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center on Franklin, where most of my most enjoyable local theatre experiences have occurred over the past two years.

The Fantasticks has a classic score with music by Harvey Schmidt and book and lyrics by Tom Jones (not the Vegas performer), and it ran continuously for over forty years off-Broadway while also being licensed for production all over the world. It is about two young neighbors named Luisa (Sharon Kibe) and Matt (Lake Wilburn) and the efforts of their respective fathers Bellomy (Scott Wilson) and Hucklebee (Ron Nocks) to make them a couple. The fathers pretend to hate each other in the hope that their children will rebel and fall for each other. They enlist El Gallo (Chris Rusen) to help them stage an abduction to bring the youngsters together, though they were already smitten and needed no assistance. The deception is unveiled, the lovebirds part, but everything turns out in the end. The plot isn’t going to keep anyone on the edge of their seat, but it doesn’t need to – the joy is seeing the show play out simply and engagingly, and Steve Black’s direction does just that.

The Fantasticks is designed to be performed on a minimal set with practical curtains and effects, which is the case here, but this production also has more sophisticated lighting cues and clearer sound than I expected. Aside from some loud but brief distortion (it sounded like a mic was live on a cast member while they were going through a costume change or an arm was brushing up against a body mic), the sound was remarkably clear and well modulated. The lovely piano accompaniment by Aaron Dvorak didn’t overpower the performers nor did they overpower it, a difficult balance to maintain I’m sure. There was a strange anomaly where Lake, whenever he faced away from the audience and towards Sharon, sounded like his voice was coming exclusively from a speaker on the far left. It was unintentionally funny when during “Metaphor” his voice would shift from coming from the center to far left to center to far left and back again as his head turned out towards and then away from the audience. Still, he sounded quite clear.

Though I saw the first performance, everyone appeared on pointe and ready to play, aside from a few negligible slip ups by fifty-year stage vet Ron Nocks (Hucklebee), who gets a pass considering how affable he comes across in a rather age-inappropriate role. As his son Matt, Lake Wilburn is startlingly good; handsome, appealing, bold-voiced without suffering from American Idol-itis, and the very definition of boy next door, which he is in this play. Sharon Kibe plays Luisa as more coquette than feline though the script would allow for more of the latter. She doesn’t appear to need to breathe much to be able to race in preparation to move from chest to head voice, and there were times I thought she sounded more Christine Daae than a simple farm girl, but she still was present and in the moment. Someone needs to dial her down from an 11 to a 7 or 8 though as she often opens her eyes so wide that they cross. Less is more, Sharon, so being young and cute while having Lake to play against can do some of the work for you. Scott Wilson as her father makes me mourn the performance I missed of him as the governor in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas several years back. He is jolly with a pleasing timbre to his voice, but he is skilled in reigning it in during his duets with Ron Nocks so that they both can be heard. Chris Rusen as El Gallo reminded me of Puss ‘n Boots, but that isn’t a bad thing. His gaze is strong and focused, and he has the looks and manner to be just as appealing but in a wholly different way than Lake. Sharon is a lucky girl, so maybe that’s why she comes off as a tad over excited. They all sing well, and isn’t that the most important thing anyway?

I was shocked to read in the program that Henry, one of El Gallo’s sidekicks, is Sileye Ndongo, a high school senior! Sure, he’s playing the part of an old man and he has a lot of affectation and stage presence, but a high school senior? Lake is also a senior, but he is playing someone around the same age. Sileye dives into near senility and wiriness fearlessly, playing someone easily more than thrice his age. Wow – his scenes with fellow sidekick David Johnson (Mortimer) are laugh out loud funny. Special attention should also be paid to Alex Lanier as The Mute, who gets the first laugh in the show and starts off the evening before settling into the scenery. I liked looking at her face from time to time as she watched her cast mates perform, seeming to enjoy the show as much as the audience while still staying in character, with only her eyes going her away. It can’t be an easy part, but Alex made her mark in it.

Director Steve Black keeps the show moving, and though his bio lists his long history with the show his direction never comes off as rote or just functional. I found myself a bit startled when it ended as I was in the wonderful position of wanting more because of how sweet and delightful the performance had been. It wasn’t perfect, but it wouldn’t have been half as enjoyable if it was. It’s a very good presentation of a classic and feels fresh.

*** out of ****

The Fantasticks continues through to June 14th, and more information can be found at http://www.srotheatre.org/the-fantasticks.html

Pretty Filthy (Abrons Arts Center – NYC)

My recent NYC theatre trip came to an end Sunday night with the closing performance of the off-Broadway musical, Pretty Filthy. This was the seventh show for me in four days, and it was a brisk ninety minutes with no intermission, was funny, and had a lot of attractive people in the cast. If it never amounts to much in the end, it isn’t the fault of the fearless and talented cast, nor is it that the idea of taking interviews with real porn stars and making them the basis of a show is a bad one.

The genesis of the show is a series of interviews done with porn stars talking about their lives and profession, and it is their actual words and stories that have been arranged into the text of the show. Some scenes are just monologues, others turn into songs that have little or no rhyme, and all have the feeling of poking fun at their subjects.

A lot of the humor comes from how unabashedly honest and candid the material is, and it works fine when it stays on that level. An ode to female ejaculation entitled “Squirting 101” is hilarious as it is performed with gusto by John Behlmann (the chorus is, “Oh my God, oh my God,” as projections of fountains spew water in the background), and it matters little that recent tests have determined that the act is one of peeing rather than an expression of orgasm commiserate with male ejaculation. It’s naughty and it’s funny, even if it only perpetuates a myth that has now been disproven. “What If I Like It” is the only song that approaches something hummable and memorable, hinting at deeper feelings within the porn stars that appear to evade them as much the creators of this show and the audience.

There is a snarkiness in the way the material has been edited, arranged, and performed that is at odds when it reaches to show something deeper. After seeing the show, I listened to the “Let Me Ascertain You” podcast that The Civilians (the theatre troupe that created Pretty Filthy) put out which is full of monologues from the same interviews that were used to create this show. The podcast featured richer (and more honest and touching) material than was used in Pretty Filthy, which is a shame. Still, it was a fun way to spend ninety minutes even if afterward it left me knowing little more about the world it was portraying than when I went in.

** / out of ****

One last note: there is a scene where the actors are in a porn parody of Star Trek with one actor clearly playing the Leonard Nimoy role of Spock. When he appeared on stage, the audience sighed audibly, as Leonard Nimoy had just passed away a few days prior. The rest of the scene kind’ve fell apart in a way that it probably didn’t just a few weeks before as the audience wasn’t reacting. I think they were thinking of Mr. Nimoy.