Tough Guys Don't Shoot Blanks
nytheatre.com review by Russell M. Kaplan
August 15, 2008
It may be difficult to recall, but there was a time before home video or DVDs. And back in that Dinosaur age, catching movies on television was a big deal... even bad movies, because where else were you going to see them? In Tough Guys Don't Shoot Blanks, playwright Todd Michael takes a loving swipe at a very specific moment in the 1950s when bad TV variety shows would showcase even worse films of yesteryear, with a little mindless chatter and product placement thrown in for good measure. It's an ambitious though somewhat disjointed farce that targets two eras at once, and mostly comes out smiling.
Skip Rayburn and Dottie Haines are the husband-and-wife hosts of "Cinema Cavalcade," a show that reliably dishes up Gangster B-movie drek from the '40s and earlier. This particular episode brings the audience "Tough Guys Don't Shoot Blanks," a rightfully-forgotten classic which follows a good-hearted but fist-happy cop, the nightclub performer he loves (played in drag by playwright Michael), her brother the two-bit hood who's bent on vengeance against gangster Sonny Rocco... you get the idea.
Tough Guys has a lot of energy and intelligence, and keeps the laughs coming fast enough for the audience to keep their smiles on for the duration of its lean 60 minutes. Michael has clearly done his homework in both the worlds of film noir and '50s pop culture, and he's packed both scenarios with impressively fast-paced, authentic-sounding banter. Director Noel Neeb taps into the spirit of the play nicely, keeping the pace brisk but not forced, and with clean storytelling as we hop between the TV show and the film. There are some fun performances as well, particularly Matt Garner as over-caffeinated host Skip Rayburn, and Christopher Rozzi doing double-duty as "Postman Pierre" and gangster Sonny Rocco.
For all its fun, this play does also feel a little pointless at times. The two stories are given more or less equal time onstage—perhaps TOO equal. Are we meant to be more invested in the gangster story (as the play's title implies), or wondering about the travails of our television hosts? It's difficult to say who's story this really is, and by the end of the play the two have somewhat canceled each other out. It might also be nice to see the characters extend beyond their broad archetypes into more deeply thought-out personalities.
Michael clearly has a great love of both these genres, and that affection ultimately helps turn Tough Guys into a fun and winning hour of FringeNYC fare. And with a little more heart given to the characters—not just the snappy things that come out of their mouths—this will emerge a real winner.