Professor Ralph's Loss of Breath
nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
August 14, 2009
As an outside observer for many years, it has been my impression that the New York International Fringe Festival is a place for work that looks forward; plays that challenge the contemporary boundaries of language, style, and, of course, taste. Thankfully, however, this year's fest features a production that would much rather look back. Way back. To 1892, to be exact. Professor Ralph's Loss of Breath is Kevin P. Hale's reconstruction of (what he claims to be) a long-dusty puppet show, written by "Professor Ralph Phillips," who was, according to press materials, comparable in skill and imagination to Muppet-teer David Goelz (FYI: he was Gonzo and the esteemed Dr. Bunson Honeydew). Whether or not any of this back story, which is expanded in the program, is true is of no matter, as the mystery only adds to the overall creative nature of this charming work.
Loss of Breath follows the initially cuckolded Mr. Lackobreath, as he attempts to recover the air from his lungs, which has been cruelly removed by his humorously horrid new bride (from Jersey?). The epic journey carries Lackobreath across land, sea, and the table of a mad scientist, bringing him into contact with a variety of strange characters, all played by Erik Gratton. If the story at times seems unclear, it is a forgivable offense. Watching the two actors use their array of props, almost bare stage, and enormous reserves of energy and wit is a worthwhile endeavor enough. Add to that Hale's clear affection for old-style vaudeville comedy, along with the live-action cartoon-style designs of Jess Hooks (costumes), Chris Schardin (sound), and Jennifer Wilcox (lighting), and you've got a show that plays well to all types of audiences. Additionally, while many FringeNYC shows may end up in spaces that add little to the play onstage, Loss of Breath is different. In the old Connelly Theatre, with its faux ornate fixtures, small balcony, and rounded proscenium, it is easy to feel transported back to an age when Loss of Breath-style comedies played out on stages across America.
Erik Gratton, playing Toby Dammit among others, is the show's driving force, working through his many changes with a surplus of charm and natural comedic instinct. Gratton's buffoonery is supported by straight-man Robert Leeds, who as Mr. Lackobreath, handles the old songs and pratfalls nicely. It is a difficult thing, having the entire burden of a production such as this rest on the shoulders of just two actors, but together, Gratton and Leeds work well. And clearly, this is a partnership that will only grow smoother and more natural as the run continues (though rarely the case, the last show of Loss of Breath may very well be the one to see).
Loss of Breath is, hopefully, proof of the strength and diversity of this year's FringeNYC Festival. And hopefully, as some shows do, Loss of Breath will find life post-Fringe. As all worthwhile comedies are, it is the kind of show that needs time on stage, before an audience, to really find what works and what does not. If this is how the future plays out, with a little editing (at 90 minutes, it feels over-extended) and clarifying of a somewhat muddy storyline, Loss of Breath should easily go from being good to great.