nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 11, 2005
Expectations can be dangerous. The press materials for Verbatim Verboten don't actually say that the show is politically-minded or that it's theatrical; it's neither, but I went thinking it would be both, with catastrophic results.
What it is, really, is an hour of stand-up comedy, performed by actors and comedians. The twist is that the material is not original—it's "borrowed" from court and police transcripts and other similar sources, the words of famous people at their not-so-best. The theme of the show on the night I attended was the law, and so we were treated to re-enactments (recitations, more accurately, at a microphone with virtually no production values) of Marion Barry's arrest for cocaine possession in a DC hotel room; Jenny Jones's testimony at the trial of Jonathan Schmitz (who murdered another guest on her TV show); a taped discussion between Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp; and acres and acres of Woody Allen's appearance at the custody trial following his separation from Mia Farrow.
The idea is that this is stuff we were never supposed to hear (although some of it is extremely familiar); and that it's funny if repeated verbatim and relatively uninflected though often out of context. And indeed, there is a certain amount of humor—gallows or otherwise—inherent in some of this material; there's also curiosity value in the less well-known bits, like Jim Morrison's cocky stint on the witness stand during his trial for indecency. But there was nothing jolting or even remotely interesting here: Marion Berry's a foul-mouthed druggie, Richard Nixon's a scary reactionary, Monica Lewinsky's an airhead. What else is new?
The jokes wear thin almost immediately. The evening's running gag—having each of the five performers take turns pretending to be Woody Allen by putting on his trademark black-rimmed glasses and nasal whine (each trying to outdo each other by punching up the pronunciation of "SOON-YEEEEEE")—was pretty much DOA.
Some of the trouble with the evening is attributable to the five performers at the show attended, who were Billy Eichner, Carolyn Ficksman, John Flynn, Molly Franklin, and Wayne Henry. I've seen Eichner on stage elsewhere and he's a talented guy, but for some reason his sole idea here was to shout all of his lines. Franklin's performance was funny, especially as Morrison and as a Bosnian delinquent's mother. The others' were not. Host Justin McElwee provides patter before and between each of the vignettes, some of which only last a few seconds; he is very much of the world of stand-up.
For the record, the press release promises a rotating cast that includes a number of better-known downtown theatre celebrities like Jonny McGovern and David Drake, but it's not clear when or how often they actually perform.
Verbatim Verboten is assuredly not theatre: it's stand-up—the kind of thing that's fun to watch, I guess, when you're in a crowd of people drinking. In any event, it's so NOT my kind of thing that I'm kind of sorry to have had to review it. Bear that in my mind when you decide whether it might be your kind of thing.