The Sinister Urge
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 4, 2006
Frank Cwiklik's back: downtown theatre just got 62% more fun.
Ok, I'm not sure of the exact percentage; what I am sure of is that Cwiklik's giddy, silly, hilarious, brilliant epics are an invaluable part of the indie theater landscape, and doing without them for the last two years has been a bitter pill to swallow. (To remind you, his oeuvre has included film adaptations like The Stranger and original pieces like Sugarbaby and Who in the Hell is the Real Live Lorelei Lee?) He's back with The Sinister Urge!, a stage realization of a terrible Ed Wood film that was indeed originally seen in the Ed Wood Festival several seasons back. With him are members of his "stock company" Bryan Enk, Josh Mertz, Bob Brader, and Michele Schlossberg, along with some talented newcomers and a bevy of beautiful, good-humored beauties. Its title notwithstanding, The Sinister Urge! has only thing on its mind, and that is to have a gigantic hoot. The Cwiklik Touch is that the hoot is had with such ingenuity and high style.
The evening begins with a reel of coming attractions—authentic trailers from what used to be called "B" movies, from many decades ago, featuring second-rung stars like Howard Duff and Barry Fitzgerald in taut, hackneyed thriller/suspense/spy plots, all hyperactively and hyperbolically plugged in a style that's as quaint as it is hilarious. It's a perfect appetizer for the over-the-top feast that follows.
The main attraction is a rendering of a movie that I never even heard of before, but given its pedigree (and now that I've seen this version of it) I'm sure it's very very bad. The Sinister Urge! is about a pornography racket run by a hard-as-nails dame named Gloria Henderson and her underling, blue movie auteur Johnny Ride. The police, led by the moronic Lieutenant Matt Carson, are trying to get enough evidence to close them down, but have heretofore bungled the job; they're also after a tall psychopath named Dirk Williams who has been murdering beautiful girls in Rutherford Park. Vivid, absurd twists and turns are provided by characters such as Officer Klein, a cop even dimmer than Carson; Sergeant Randy Stone, Carson's partner and occasional would-be (sort of) love interest; Ride's "cinematographer," Jaffe; an ice cream shop owner named Claussen and a pizza joint owner named Jake "Dutch" Kowalski; a gangster disguised as a nun; and scads of nameless beautiful women who are exploited by Gloria and Johnny—the victims of the show's titular (cautionary) Social Problem.
Lest we fail to get the Important Moral of this craziness, a "movie within the movie" about poor innocent Mary Smith, a wannabe actress from the American Heartland who comes to the Big City in search of fame and fortune but instead winds up making cheapie nudie flicks for Gloria and Johnny, is inserted right in the middle of The Sinister Urge!
At whatever level, and from whatever angle, it's all grand, cheesy, ridiculous fun. Cwiklik and his cast have a ball sending up Bad Film, Bad Theatre, and Bad Ideas, in a show that is 100% terrific all the way. (Bad Theatre does not have to be bad theatre.) No joke is eschewed, no matter how often we've heard it before; without irony, the girls (and one of the guys) parade around in various states of dishabille, even as the script bemoans the evils of flaunting sex.
At the same time, the originality that only comes with authentic talent is constantly on display. Cwiklik blends video with live action ingeniously (there's a grand moment, for example, when Johnny Ride looks out Gloria's "window" to an (incongruous) view of the ocean). The actors chew the scenery, but they chew carefully: Bryan Enk is superb as the crazed villain Dirk, a mostly silent character whose daffy diabolicalness is conveyed via precise, wacky choreography; Josh Mertz is heroically debonair and sleazy as Johnny Ride; Michele Schlossberg channels the older Gloria Swanson and the young Joan Crawford—simultaneously—as Gloria; Bob Brader and Matthew Gray bumble and fumble artfully as Carson and Stone; and newcomer Kevin Orzechowski explodes with manic energy, both as Officer Klein and Gloria's strange manservant Rodolfo. Filling out the ensemble, in what seems like a hundred roles among them, are Shoshana Hoffert, Jennifer Leigh, Mateo Moreno, Melissa Nearman, Jessica Savage, and Jessica Silver.
If you haven't figured out that great indie theater is one of the best entertainment bargains in town, check out The Sinister Urge!: you really can have this much fun for twenty bucks. And it's not even a guilty pleasure, because Frank Cwiklik—who, like Ed Wood, works under severe budgetary restrictions and has his own distinctive, singular, slightly warped artistic vision; and who, importantly NOT like Ed Wood, actually has tremendous talent—is one of the great theatre creators of the moment. It's a joy to have him creating once again. Long may he reign.