nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 12, 2005
Fully PACT represents the culmination of six months of development of seven new short plays from Playwrights/Actors Contemporary Theater (PACT). They're being presented in two separate programs; I caught "Destination B," which includes four pieces by Craig Pospisil, Stuart D'Ver, P. Seth Bauer, and Lisa Ferber and Robert Firpo-Cappiello.
Before I talk about the individual shows, let me note that the company's ambition here seems to be outstripping its capabilities, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make for less than optimal viewing of new work. Specifically: the production values in each show proved to be pretty impressive, but performance elements felt problematic, as if directors and cast members simply hadn't had enough time to pull their work together. This situation was exacerbated by the choice of material (and I'm speaking here only about the four plays I got to see), which is exciting in terms of audacity and diversity of theme, genre, and style, but therefore necessarily more challenging to put up than the run-of-the-mill ten-minute play evening we see so often off-off-Broadway. So while we're seeing here work that's genuinely sophisticated and interesting, I'm not sure we're seeing it at its best. (I was at a very early performance, and that needs to be taken into account as well.)
The one completely successful piece, in my estimation, was the first, Pospisil's Train of Thought. Staged on a New York City subway car, this clever contemporary urban comedy takes us inside the heads of four late-night travelers headed downtown. There're two couples: Marcy and Wade, and Nina and Frank. Wade has spied a pretty girl at the other end of the car and has decided he's fallen in love with her at first sight. Nina—said pretty girl—is a little creeped out by Wade's attention, and instead looks forward to a cozy romantic evening with her boyfriend Frank. Marcy, Wade's girlfriend, wonders about her relationship with Wade: does her really love her?; he's always so willing to go along with whatever she wants to do that she's starting to worry that he doesn't really care. And as for Frank—he's focused on the newspaper he's trying to read, bemoaning the state of current politics.
Pospisil draws out neat surprises from his characters as they move toward their destinations (metaphorical as well as literal); the writing is crisp and witty and has the ring of truth. All four actors do excellent work here: Michael Rhodes is very funny as the arch, put-upon Frank; Nancy Wu is a charmer as the perky but not cloying Nina; Missy Hall is similarly likable wavering between romance and pragmatism as Marcy; and Scott Katzman is utterly convincing as the hapless dreamer Wade. Christopher Maring's staging is satisfactory though perhaps more inert than it might be; Haruka Ashida's illogical (indeed, mostly unrecognizable) subway car set represents the sole misstep in an otherwise excellent collection of deft, workable designs for the evening.
The next two items, D'Ver's Tragedy ( A Comedy) and Bauer's Vermouth & Chicken, feel like high-concept comedies that haven't quite gelled yet. The former is about a fresh-faced guy from Kansas City who comes up against his new girlfriend Masha's eccentrically dour family and loses. On one level, it's like an Adams Family episode: "normal" stranger encounters the all-black-clad, excessively gloomy clan and the culture shock fuels a succession of jokes. I sensed something deeper was intended though: there's a New-Yorkers-versus-the-rest-the-world ethos implied here (though not fully explored), and there's also more than one allusion to Chekhov (Josh, the Kansas City dude, asks why his girlfriend Masha always dresses in black at the top of the play) that I was hoping would go somewhere. Jody O'Neil's staging fails to clarify the overall thrust, and as a result an able cast mostly flounders.
Vermouth & Chicken is far and away the most ambitious item on the program. A (presumably middle- or upper-middle-class nuclear) family suddenly finds itself with all of its possessions missing—taken away, the punk-attired daughter Angie explains, by "them." All that's left is a TV set that only displays white "snow" and a seemingly unlimited supply of vermouth and chicken. Eventually father, mother, and daughter are joined by son Brad and his new girlfriend, and later all five lose all of their clothes save their underwear. There's an absurdist parable lurking in here somewhere; Bauer is conjuring Albee's A Delicate Balance here, along with Beckett and Ionesco, to make some points about complacency and materialism. But again, it doesn't quite work, and I think that's mostly because the piece isn't there yet. (One thing I couldn't quite make out was why the two titular items were the particular ones chosen.)
After intermission comes Oh, Mister Cadhole!, an hour-long musical by Lisa Ferber (book and lyrics) and Robert Firpo-Cappiello (music and lyrics). (Actually, there are only a handful of songs: I'd be inclined to characterize this as a comedy with music, and even then I'd question whether the songs are really necessary.) The conceit of Cadhole—a very clever one—is to impose classic noir style on the most commonplace of events, in this case, daily life in an office. The "caper" involves the diversion of miscellaneous office products (staples, paper clips, etc.) by VERY small-time hoods Horace Page and Molly Hadafew to a new profit-making office supply company of their own; I love how silly and unsubstantial this is, a molehill turned into a very funny mountain by Ferber's exaggerated appropriation of the taut, sexy, metaphor-laden style of Double Indemnity and Sam Spade pictures. There's also a murder (of the title character), which is less funny because it's what we actually expect from a pulpy suspense tale; and there are also two detectives and a lot of other appropriately improbable plot developments. The piece is probably longer than it needs to be, but the jokes land more often than not and the ambience of the thing is delightful.
A play like this needs a very consistent style in order to work, and here's where this production of Cadhole falters. Christopher Windom's staging—and again, this may be improving with subsequent showings—is sluggish and imprecise. There are a host of spectacularly good comic turns on view here: Alyssa Simon is dead-on as tough-as-nails Molly Hadafew (and her hairpiece—at least I assume it's a hairpiece—seems to have a life of its own: a great touch). Ivanna Cullinan is similarly supremely assured as boss lady Hermione Trufflehead; like Simon's, all her line deliveries and comic business hit their targets. Tom Paitson Kelly is hilarious as nerdy Horace Page, especially when he momentarily transforms into an only slightly more debonair version of himself. And Devon Hawkes Ludlow, a supremely talented clown, is terrific in the silent role of Jeffries Servalot, Mrs. Trufflehead's valet; when he bursts into song (without uttering a sound, of course), he's brilliantly funny. Ludlow is an actor we need to see more of on NYC stages.
But for all the hits in Cadhole there are an equal number of misses: Marci Occhino is entirely at sea as the ingénue Marilyn Mushroomburger; Kevin Draine and Peter Handy seem, at best, inadequately prepared as detective and murder victim, respectively; Lisa Barnes, as the other detective (one Gloria Gauzefilter), gives a game performance but she never seems comfortable in the role, particularly when she's called upon to sing and dance; and Eric C. Bailey is resolutely unfunny in what could be the silliest role of the show, a gay man's man called Lex Blockawood.
I see real potential in all of the work in "Destination B" of Fully PACT, and I hope that these initial stagings help the creators move closer to their ambitious visions for them. I'll be eager to check in on all of these pieces, if and when they achieve new form in the future.