The Tremendous Tremendous
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 1, 2011
In their new play The Tremendous Tremendous, The Mad Ones accomplish something that is at once special and rare. Their show is an investigation of a particular moment; a particular mood. It's filled with incidents but not one of them, on its own, really matters. Instead, what's captured and conveyed—in resoundingly resonant and moving fashion—is a state of mind, or a set of characters' individual and composite states of mind: lingering, melancholy, and ineffable.
The setting for this piece is the last day of the 1939 New York World's Fair. We are in the dressing room of the Abbott Family, a theatre troupe that has just scored an enormous career triumph as one of the sensations of this exposition. The family consists of three brothers—one named Charlie and two named Henry; Lucillia, the lone female in the group; and Squid, the newest member, who joined the group sometime after its founder, Murray, departed the scene. I don't think I'm giving too much away when I tell you that these people are not necessarily blood relations, but that nonetheless the relationships among them are thick and complicated and loaded. It's never entirely clear exactly what kind of performance or act the Abbotts do: it seems to be based on Hamlet, with some sword fighting and a lot of clowning involved. When the Abbotts enter their dressing room, they're wearing crazy costumes that blend commedia dell'arte with a kind of knockabout American burlesque/vaudeville circa 1930. Their faces are swathed in white clown makeup.
What happens during the play is that the Abbotts get out of their costumes and into their street clothes, packing up their possessions for departure from the fairgrounds the following morning. They banter and chat; they borrow a World's Fair promo movie and screen it in their room, reminiscing about the eventful days just concluded; they eat a little popcorn, drink a lot of whiskey, sing to the piano and dance to the radio. They look back on what they just accomplished from a feel-good high that they each suspect—without ever saying so—could well be the pinnacle of their lives.
The achievement here, as I've said, rests not in the plotting or dialogue but in the prevailing mood that The Mad Ones so artfully and cannily establish. The ability of these artists to create and then share a feeling that's at once intangible yet so familiar is extraordinary. I already worry that I've said too much about what happens here; really, see The Tremendous Tremendous for yourself to discover this very unusual theatrical experience.
The core members of The Mad Ones are writer/performers Marc Bovino (who plays one of the Henrys), Joe Curnutte (Charlie), and Stephanie Wright Thompson (Lucillia). Joining them here are actors Henry Vick (the other Henry) and Michael Dalto (Squid). The chemistry these actors sustain during the show is palpable and perhaps the most impressive aspect of a set of performances that are remarkable for their feeling, authenticity, and versatility. The talent occupying the Brick stage in this production is immense. Director Jeffrey Withers, usually an actor according to his program bio and new to the company, still has a few opportunities to tighten and edit some areas of the production (for example, in the scene where the Abbotts gather to screen their pilfered movie, one of them wears a tall tall hat that was directly in my line of vision—it wasn't so much that I couldn't see the film but rather that I was pulled out of the world of the play for a while as I adjusted to this; and this isn't a world that the audience should ever be pulled away from). The set, credited to The Mad Ones, is wonderfully detailed and loaded with surprises. Costumes by Sydney Gallas, makeup by Michael Anthony, sound by Stowe Nelson, and lighting by Mike Inwood all contribute mightily to the success of the show.
The Tremendous Tremendous is a rich and rewarding work of theatre that transports its audience not only to the time and place where it unfolds but to other locations private and personal to each of us; it kind of magically casts a spell to bring you to a place in your own past where you felt something akin to what you're witnessing on stage. The Mad Ones, who have only one (much acclaimed) previous credit, are definitely a company to watch.